European football is the minimum Hearts will accept this season after an uncomfortable few weeks.
Goalkeeper Jack Hamilton made that assertion today, stressing that a place in the Europa League qualifying round this summer is essential to the Edinburgh club.
Five games without a win make such an aspiration all the more difficult given Hearts are now out of the Scottish Cup – one avenue into Europe – and sit fourth in the Ladbrokes Premiership ahead of today’s meeting with Hamilton Academical.
They enjoyed last year’s return to Europe after a four-year absence but suffered a disappointing loss to the Maltese club Birkirkara in the Europa League’s second qualifying round after beating Infonet of Estonia in the first.
Hamilton and his colleagues want to atone for that earlier-than-expected exit. To qualify again, they must finish at least third in the Premiership. Fourth would be sufficient for a European place if Celtic, Rangers or Aberdeen win the Scottish Cup and finish in the top three.
“We still want to finish as high in the table as we can. A European place is a must really, we can’t be settling for anything less than that. We need the European place,” stressed the goalkeeper. “That would be a brilliant achievement. That is the aim, to get in there and do better than we did this season. We want to progress and improve every season as individuals and a club.”
Recent criticism from supporters has hit hard in the Riccarton dressing room. Head coach Ian Cathro has won four of 15 matches since replacing Robbie Neilson. Hamilton explained that the unforgiving nature of fans venting frustration can sting. “It does but everybody is entitled to their opinions and we need to put that right on the park. There is no point moping about it. We need to go out there and prove ourselves,” he said.
“It’s been difficult but you’re at a massive club with massive expectations. We’ve got to realise that as well. We just have to go out in every game and try to build on it, get ourselves better and get results for the team.”
One accusation is that too many of Cathro’s squad don’t properly appreciate what the Hearts badge stands for, or what is expected of them by the paying public.
“We’ve watched highlights from games in the past – the passion of the derby – and we’ve tried to drill that into them. But they have played in massive games abroad. That takes time, but we have a good bunch of boys who are training hard and the games are coming thick and fast again now.
“The supporters have been great. We can’t say, ‘the fans need to get behind us’, because we haven’t been giving them the results. It’s down to us to get a result for them. You can feel it [disgruntlement] but that’s because we are their team and we’re not getting the results the expect from us. They are paying good money to come and watch so we need to perform for them, as well as ourselves.”
Hamilton stressed that, after an insipid Edinburgh derby defeat by Hibs in the Scottish Cup two weeks ago, no-one can be in any doubt about Hearts’ standards. “A lot of boys know. It was drilled down everybody’s neck and by the end of it everybody knew how big a club Hearts actually is. For me, playing in the derby does mean a lot. Even going out in Edinburgh after the derby, it means so muych to the people. We were poor on the night but we need to repay them now.”
Cathro has put his players through double training sessions as they didn’t play last weekend. “The manager’s entitled to say what he wants or do what he wants. He’s the man in charge, all the players have got his back. He’s been brilliant since he came in,” said Hamilton.