Premiership progress is the only viable remedy for Hearts’ European trauma. Five days since Birkirkara executed the perfect Europa League mugging, wounds are still visible in Gorgie. Healing them will take time but the imminent start of the league campaign can only aid the recovery.
Hearts meet Celtic on Sunday week in their opening match of the 2016/17 Ladbrokes Premiership. For all they may nurture a grievance over an earlier-than-expected European exit against a non-seeded Maltese team, there is no more time to wallow in self-pity.
Igor Rossi, the Edinburgh club’s Brazilian defender, explains that the regrouping has already begun. He was as dejected as anyone exiting Tynecastle last Thursday night after Birkirkara’s 2-1 victory. He acknowledges the defending wasn’t up to standard, that fans are justifiably angry, and that everyone involved must learn from the catastrophe.
League football remains core, though, and Hearts must now look forward rather than back. A clutch of players are still adapting to life at a new club and, their European aspirations scythed down, will be keen to establish themselves in the Premiership.
Rossi is philosophical. As one of the more experienced members of Robbie Neilson’s Hearts squad, the 27-year-old is keen to encourage others to push on and shake off the disappointment lingering around Riccarton.
“We lost the game, there are no more chances and now we are finished in the Europa League. Now we go to the Premiership, another tournament, and we must be ready,” he told the Evening News in an exclusive interview. “We have Celtic in our first game in a couple of weeks. We have to get the Europa League out of our heads. We are training now for the league season and to face Celtic.”
He believes supporters are rightly perturbed by the Birkirkara defeat and deserve an apology. “All the players are disappointed with this situation. Hearts have a lot of fans and they are good fans but, in the Europa League, all teams are quality,” he continued.
“I’m not surprised at the fans being unhappy. They are fantastic at all the games, home and away. They are disappointed because they wanted us to win and get to the next round in Europe. I’m sorry for the fans for this disappointment.”
One way to atone would be to return instantly to the European arena next summer. That would involve Scottish Cup success this season or another finish in the Premiership’s upper echelons. Hearts secured third place last season – their first back in the top flight – and were propelled into Europa League qualifiers earlier than predicted following their recovery from administration.
The players recruited by Neilson and Craig Levein, the club’s director of football, were eager to sample European football. The likes of Don Cowie and Arnaud Djoum, aged 33 and 27 respectively, are hardly footballing novices but they arrived in Edinburgh with no prior experience of playing in Europe.
Rossi had previously been involved with the Portuguese club Maritimo, with whom he enjoyed a run to the Europa League group phase in season 2012/13. Like many of his Hearts team-mates right now, he is not sated by two qualifying rounds against Infonet of Estonia and Birkirkara.
“That’s very important. It’s important for the players to be playing in the Europa League and that is what we want to achieve again,” he said. “Europe is finished for us now but next season we want to be there again.
“This was our first time in the Europa League and we have many young players. Hearts is a big club, they need this. This season, we must make the Europa League and that starts in the first game against Celtic. We will go out to win.
“Half of our players are young so this year is experience for us. Next season, if we qualify for the Europa League, we will be able to look at last season and it will be different. We need to score – one chance, one goal.”
That reference to scoring seems especially prevalent. Rossi watched from his central defensive berth as Hearts dominated much of the play against Birkirkara without finding the net.
They were then picked off by two classic continental-style counter-attacks and left to rue a missed opportunity.
“I think we played well in the first half, we had chances but we didn’t score. In European football, if you don’t score, it’s difficult,” Rossi pointed out. “The first goal we lost was poor because there was no concentration for the second ball. It’s disappointing.
“All the players were motivated, it was a big chance for us, a home game, but this is football. I’m very disappointed with it. I think all the players played a good game but it’s the Europa League.
“We had two balls and no concentration so the other team scored two goals.”