A magnificent backs-to-the-wall performance gave Hearts a dramatic victory over Basel, and kept alive their hopes of making the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup.
This win gave them three points from three games, and a victory in their last Group A match, against Ferencvaros at Murrayfield on December 16, would have been enough to take them through.
The Scottish side’s hopes of taking all three points seemed to have gone after a first-half goal from Dennis Wyness was cancelled out by a late equaliser from the Swiss side. Instead of hanging on for only a point, Robbie Neilson’s goal in the penultimate minute of regulation time was enough to give them a highly-valuable win.
The result was a dramatic vindication of John Robertson’s decision to go to Switzerland and attack. The coach’s decision to play an attacking formation was a brave one, and he was understandably delighted afterwards.
“It feels fantastic,” Robertson said. “We needed to be brave to come and win and we did. Craig Gordon had a wonder game – his save [from Scott Chipperfield’s] diving header was probably the best save I’ve ever seen. Even when it was 1-1 we thought we still had a chance of getting the winner and that’s why Graham Weir came on [as a substitute],” the coach continued.
“It’s a fantastic result, as simple as that, for Hearts to come here and dig out a result like that, at a stadium where Basel have beaten so many great teams.
“We knew that a draw would at worst have given us a chance of going through, but we knew to have any real chance we would need to win both games. It was a real team effort to win this game, and you saw how much it meant to the supporters.”
Robertson also praised Wyness, whose first European goal had given Hearts the lead in the first half. Having worked with the striker at Inverness Caley Thistle, the coach perhaps has a better insight into the way he works than did Craig Levein. Certainly, Wyness is now beginning to play with the confidence he has so painfully lacked at times since his move from the Highlands to Tynecastle.
The winning goal for Neilson was his first in senior football, and he admitted later. “I was delighted and stunned when this one went in, and all the lads were congratulating me.”
Neilson said that the win was even better than a similar one achieved in France a year ago in the same competition. “This is a better one for us than Bordeaux, because we went out after losing the second leg against them. This means that even if we only get one point in the last match we still have a chance of going through.”
With so much to play for in the match against Ferencvaros, Hearts hoped to attract a crowd of up to 30,000 at Murrayfield, another increase in attendance on the previous two matches played there that season.
Neilson added that he had raced upfield just on the off-chance. “I saw Phil Stamp up there and decided to run into the box and see what happens. I wouldn’t say I would be happy if I never scored again. Hopefully this is the start of things and I am going to get a few more.”
The game was marred in the first half both by the incursion on to the pitch of a handful of Hearts fans after Wyness scored, and by racist chanting aimed at the Edinburgh club’s striker Mark de Vries by a small section of the Swiss club’s support. Both incidents could lead to UEFA taking action, but, by the end of the match, such concerns had largely been forgotten.
The Basel fans were more concerned with booing their own team after a result which leaves them with just one point, while the delirious Hearts supporters were content to celebrate loudly but off the pitch.
Christian Gross, the Basel coach, said: “We had lots of opportunities both before and after our equaliser, but that goal at the end was just unfortunate. I can’t blame my team for it.
“We gave it our best shot. Now we have to go to Budapest and try and do there what Hearts did here.”
Hearts were eliminated when they lost 1-0 to Ferencvaros – a match best remembered for Robertson appearing to kick the Hungarians’ manager – and future Hearts boss – Csaba Laszlo on the touchline.
Hearts: Gordon, Neilson, Maybury, Webster, Pressley (c), McAllister, Stewart (McFarlane 70), Hamill, Wyness, De Vries (Weir 86), Pereira (Stamp 66). Subs not used: Moilanen, Berra, Sloan, Janczyk
FC Basel: Zuberbuhler, Zwyssig, Huggel, Sterjovski (D Degan 71), Chipperfield, Gimenez, Correa, Delgado (Barberis), P Degan, Smiljanic, Rossi (Carignano). Subs not used: Quennoz, Mandl
Referee: K Jakobsson