AS the triumphant Hearts players made their way off Murrayfield, David Bowie’s Heroes was belting out from the PA system, a fitting send-off for the Jambos who had just taken a huge stride towards the lucrative group stages of the UEFA Cup.
However, while gladly basking in glory in the immediate aftermath of another magnificent European result, the Jambos know they must regard themselves as such for just the one day.
Bragging Braga boss Jesualdo Ferreira had gone into last night’s first round, first leg encounter confident his side were too good for the hosts – but how he underestimated the spirit and determination of this Hearts side.
The 3-1 triumph sent the near-19,000 Jambos who descended on the home of Scottish rugby into raptures, goals from Andy Webster, Paul Hartley and Patrick Kisnorbo earning a stirring victory.
However, Craig Levein and his men know that their job is only half done, with a stiff examination awaiting them in a fortnight’s time in the Estadio Municipal.
Last season in Bordeaux the Gorgie outfit understandably let their celebrations spill over after a famous victory, perhaps thinking the hard work had already been done with ‘Fortress Tynecastle’ awaiting the French in the second leg – 90 minutes which ultimately taught Levein’s young squad a harsh lesson in the realities of European football with Bordeaux easing into the next round.
With that experience in mind, the scenes of celebration were somewhat more measured in comparison last night, the players content in the knowledge they had done an excellent professional job.
While the concession of the away goal to Paulo Sergio, criminally just two minutes after Hartley had blasted Hearts 2-0 ahead with a superb volley, took the edge off a superb result, the home side had achieved their primary objective - to give themselves something to defend in Portugal.
“There were a lot of things against us going into this game but I am not surprised how we coped,” said Levein.
“I know what great character and resilience there is within the squad.
“It was a difficult occasion for them with all the things which have been going on and European games are difficult enough without added pressure. But I thought they handled it very well.
“Most importantly, we gave the fans something to cheer about and that in turn allowed us to feed off what the supporters did for us.
“Overall I was pleased with the night’s work.”
No praise can be too high for Levein and his players after their efforts last night, with circumstances appearing to have contrived against them in the build-up to the kick-off.
It was bad enough that they were forced to play in the unfamiliar surroundings of the home of Scottish rugby, a cavernous cathedral of a stadium which can hold 67,500 spectators. But fears of a poor atmosphere were quickly dispelled as the Gorgie faithful cranked up the decibel level from the first blast of Anton Genov’s whistle.
At least the players had known about that for long enough and had time to adjust to the idea. Levein, however, saw his plans for the game thrown into disarray through illness and injury, with Graham Weir sidelined by mumps just 24 hours before kick-off.
With Ramon Perreira out with a twisted ankle and the Hearts boss unable to call on Kevin McKenna and Stephen Simmons as possible partners to Mark de Vries – who himself wasn’t fully match fit – Levein had even considered asking defender Alan Maybury to tackle the role of emergency striker. In the end he decided against that particular option, with Phil Stamp handed the task of pushing forward to assist the giant Dutchman at every opportunity.
The ‘home’ side made light of their alien surroundings to continue where they had left off against Rangers at Tynecastle on Sunday, carrying the game to their more technical opponents. Jamie McAllister, making his first start for his new club, had two decent shooting chances in the opening seven minutes but on both occasions lacked the necessary accuracy to test Paulo Santos. Despite having been pinpointed by Braga as Hearts’ main danger man, De Vries was able to cause the Portuguese back line all sorts of problems with his aerial prowess.
It was on the deck, though, that he almost made a telling contribution in the 36th minute, the Dutchman being sent tumbling by Nunes just inches outside the penalty box, Stamp wasting a good shooting chance by driving his effort straight at the defensive wall. Two minutes later and the midfielder produced a superb one-handed stop from Santos after De Vries had set him up.
With Hearts dominating proceedings, the nearest the visitors came in the opening period was a shot from Jaime Junior which deflected wickedly off Webster, Craig Gordon reacting well to spare his defender’s blushes.
Having gone in at the interval on level terms, it was clear Hearts had the measure of Braga, who time and again resorted to play-acting in an attempt to stop the flow of the game.
And six minutes after the restart, the opening goal Levein had been craving duly arrived from the unexpected source of Webster. The impressive Joe Hamill set off on a trademark jinking run, whipped in a cross to De Vries whose header back was met by the former Arbroath stopper, who stooped to head home his second UEFA Cup goal after last season’s counter against Zeljeznicar at Tynecastle.
De Vries then presented Stamp with a chance to run in on goal but with the midfielder lacking the pace to carry him past his marker, he opted for a shot from 20 yards which rose narrowly over the bar. There was plenty of encouragement for the home fans and with 62 minutes played Murrayfield erupted when Neilson’s cross was brilliantly volleyed home by Hartley, the reaction of Steven Pressley as he pumped the air time and time again on the half-way line telling its own story.
The Jambos’ joy was short-lived, however, with poor marking at a Junior free-kick allowing Sergi a free header inside the six-yard area.
Hearts had committed the cardinal sin of conceding at home and while the players were unsettled for a brief period – substitute Joao Tomas came close on two occasions – the introduction of Dennis Wyness helped sway the game back towards Hearts.
With 90 minutes on the clock, he came agonisingly close to finishing off a superb piece of skill when he turned inside the Braga defence and slipped the ball just wide of Santos’ left-hand post. With the fans – and Levein – thinking that was their last opportunity gone, Kisnorbo popped up in injury time to control Hartley’s corner and smash a shot into the back of the net – his first goal for the club.
“That third goal might be vital if we can do our job properly defensively in Braga,” said Levein.
“We were very conscious after the game that we celebrated a lot after beating Bordeaux in France only to be left with egg on our face so we will save any celebrations, if there are to be any, until after the second leg.”
Hearts: Gordon, Neilson, Pressley, Webster, Maybury, Hamill (MacFarlane 81), Kisnorbo, Hartley, Stamp (Wyness 79), McAllister, de Vries. Subs Not Used: Moilanen, Janczyk, Sloan, Berra, Stewart
Braga: Paulo Santos, Abel, Paulo Jorge, Nunes, Jorge Luiz, Luis Loureiro, Vandinho, Kenedy, Paulo Sergio (Cesinha 75), Baha (Jaime 37), Wender. Subs Not Used: Cicero, Mauricio, Joao Tomas, Marco, Barroso
Referee: Anton Genov (Bulgaria)