Hearts enter the unknown today in the first qualifying round of the Europa League, but head coach Robbie Neilson is relishing the opportunity. He is ready to embrace whichever task lies ahead, even if it means a trip to a remote location on Europe’s outskirts.
The ultimate aim for the Edinburgh club is to reach the tournament group stages, although Neilson stressed the importance of focusing on one round at a time. Hearts must successfully negotiate four two-legged qualifying ties over the next two months in order to secure a place in the Europa League groups.
UEFA draw the first and second qualifying rounds in Nyon today, with Aberdeen joining Hearts in the first round as seeded teams and Hibs entering one round later. The first-round draw is scheduled to take place at 12 noon GMT and will be screened live on UEFA’s official website.
The first leg of the first qualifying round takes place on June 30, with the return match on July 7. It marks a return to European competition after a four-year absence for the Tynecastle side and Neilson stressed that everyone involved should enjoy the experience.
“It’s exciting, something different for the players as well as the staff,” he said. “We need to go and prepare for teams we don’t know. Generally in Scotland you play each other four, five or six times in a season. You know each other. In Europe, it will be a quick ten-day turnaround. You have to travel and prepare properly and it is all good experience.
“We want to try and get into the group stages, as all teams do. It is very difficult for Scottish teams to get through. Ourselves and Aberdeen need to come through four rounds to get there and every one will be difficult. It is a tough ask but it’s one we want to try and get to.
“It would be phenomenal to get there, to be honest with you, especially when you look at the different budgets of teams across Europe. I was over in Bratislava a couple of weeks ago and the team had a £12million budget. People think these are just teams from wee countries, but they are some huge teams from huge countries.
“Those are the kind of teams you are competing against. So for any of the Scottish teams to get to the group stage would be massive in terms of prestige and the tough work it requires.”
After adding Robbie Muirhead, Faycal Rherras and Conor Sammon to his squad, Neilson is confident Hearts can progress in the tournament. “Potentially, we have a really good team here but we have to work hard. The signings have to be right, the players have to be right on the night and we need the backing of the fans to get as far as we can in Europe.
“We will take one game at a time. I know it’s a cliché but the first round is hard and the second round is harder. It stays that way all through to the group stage.”