Hearts star insists Tynecastle side will fear nobody as they get ready for battle in Europa League Conference
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Getting Fiorentina from Pot 2 to go along with Istanbul Basaksehir, in addition to Latvian minnows RFS, means Robbie Neilson’s side will likely have to pull off at least one stunning result if they want to finish among the top two sides in Group A of the Europa Conference League and advance to the next round.
Though the Viola aren’t quite the same prospect as they were during the heyday of legendary Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta, they still finished seventh in the Italian top flight last term, just three points shy of Juventus in fourth and a place in the Champions League. Basaksehir, on the other hand, were fourth in the Turkish league and bolstered their squad this summer with the signing of 93-cap, World Cup-winning German international Mesut Ozil.
While it may look like a daunting prospect on paper, those inside the Hearts dressing room believe they’ve already shown this campaign they have what it takes to battle with the best of European football after narrowly losing in both legs to reigning Swiss champions FC Zurich.
"We'll not be frightened by anyone. Teams find it hard coming here with the atmosphere and the fans being so close to the pitch that it feels like they're right on top of you. We can use it to our advantage, definitely,” said right-back Michael Smith in the aftermath of Thursday’s Europa League play-off exit.
Trailing 2-1 from the away fixture, Hearts battered Zurich in the first half at Tynecastle but couldn’t find the back of the net. They still looked in pretty good shape in the second period before Jorge Grant’s second booking for alleged dive handed the impetus back to Franco Foda’s visitors, who killed the tie in the 80th minute with a goal by Fabian Rohner.
"It's a tough pill to swallow,” said Smith. “I thought we really played well first half, maybe should have capitalised a bit better, but that's football. Then obviously the sending off probably changed the game, we're struggling from there a little bit. It's always a blow to get a red card, especially when you need to score to stand a chance of going through. Granty is a great guy and he'll be a big player for us this season. There are no hard feelings against him, it's just one of those things.
“We knew we would have to come and play well. We knew the fans would be right behind us. I thought in that first half we were brilliant. It was one of the best performances I've been involved in here. We just couldn't score the goal.
“It's a little bit quiet in the dressing room after that. But we're in the Conference League now. We have to take the positives and go into the groups looking forward to it.”
His career in Edinburgh has been a rollercoaster ride for the veteran defender. Arriving from Peterborough in the 2017 summer window to join Scotland’s third biggest club, Smith had eyes on playing in European football regularly. Instead, initial struggles eventually led to relegation to the second tier in 2020, albeit in controversial circumstances. Since then the club has risen like the proverbial phoenix and continues to thrive even in the face of such bitter set-backs.
"My first European start at the age of 33. I was excited. I thought we had a right good chance. I was just trying to do everything I could to help the team. I'm proud of everyone tonight, including the staff and the boys who didn't play. I'm proud for everyone at the club and where we've come from,” Smith said.
“We've spoke about it in the dressing room. We've gone from playing in the Scottish Championship – Friday night away, on an astroturf pitch, with nobody in the stadium – to playing in European competition.
"It would have been nice if it was the Europa League, but it wasn't to be. The next best thing is the Conference League and we know now that we can go and compete against these teams. We can go and stamp our authority on it. I'm looking forward to the next stage now.”
There were several players in maroon, including Smith himself, who did not deserve to be on the losing side when the 90 minutes came to a close in midweek. This was particularly true of the human Energizer Bunny in the middle of the park, Cammy Devlin, and the man on the opposite Smith on the other side of the back four, Alex Cochrane.
The 22-year-old left-back joined permanently this summer after impressing in a season-long loan from Brighton last term and he already appears to be going from strength to strength in the new campaign.
"He's been brilliant all season,” said Smith of his fresh-faced team-mate. “I was pleased when we managed to bring him back in. I'm sure there were big clubs down south sniffing around. He got a taste of what it's like up here and decided to come back.
“I had a couple of little words with him last week in Zurich after the first half. Just little things where, if I'm not on the pitch, it's easier to see. I do what I can to try and help out the younger players, make things a little more comfortable for them.
"He's a fantastic player. You can see he's going to thrive here and go on to do whatever he wants in his career.”