The Riccarton seminar: Hearts await their fate as Europa League draw works in intricate ways
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No Tynecastle side has experienced continental group stage football in its current format. Excitement is building amongst supporters and players, who will finish their morning training session before shuffling upstairs to watch the Europa League play-off draw live from UEFA at 12pm.
One of 15 teams will travel to Edinburgh later this month once third-round qualifiers are complete. This afternoon, Hearts learn which tie to watch as they await the winners. They will meet either a team from the Priority Three or Priority Four pots.
Victors from the following five third-round qualifying ties will enter Priority Three for the play-off: Malmo (SWE) v F91 Dudelange (LUX), Shamrock Rovers (IRE) v Shkupi (MKD), Linfield (NIR) v Zurich (SUI), Olympiakos (GRE) v Slovan Bratislava (SVK), and Maribor (SVN) v HJK Helsinki (FIN).
The Priority Four pot will contain winners from the following two matches: AEK Larnaca (CYP) v Partizan Belgrade (SRB) and Fenerbahce (TUR) v Slovacko (SVK). Omonia Nicosia (CYP) have also been moved into Priority Four.
The first team drawn is usually at home in the first leg, although occasionally UEFA will permit a reverse at the request of both teams.
A reputable side from a serious footballing hotbed like Athens, Istanbul or Belgrade would present a real threat to Hearts’ ambitions of reaching the Europa League group stage. The parachute of a Europa Conference League group place is therefore a handy safety net.
Either way, they are guaranteed at least eight European matches from now until November. The club’s only previous experience of group-stage ties abroad was in the 2004/05 UEFA Cup when the future Europa League group phase was still in its infancy.
There were just three section games back then compared to six now. Add in a participation payment of around £3million and it becomes a lucrative and exciting prospect.
“It’ll be great. The analyst guy brought in a list of the teams we could play,” explained Robbie Neilson, the Hearts manager. “We needed to beat Ross County first, then Hibs and then Dundee United. Then we’ll take care of who we’ve got in Europe.
“For us the focus has to be on a short-term basis to make sure we win these games. It’ll be exciting when it comes, but it’s still three weeks away. We’ll come in here and watch the draw. We’ll train first and then come in and watch it.”
Wisely trying to temper expectation, Neilson would be as well stepping outside to urinate in the wind. Hearts supporters are already preparing one big adventure over the coming months. They’ve endured four managerial changes, an enforced relegation and a global pandemic since their last European trip in 2016.
“I think it will be brilliant,” admitted Neilson. “For the staff and the players, but for the fans it will be unbelievable. They’re guaranteed four trips away and it is well-earned with the money they’re putting into the club.
“For us, it’s the balance and ability required to do it on a Thursday-Sunday. That’s at least eight extra games, plus a Premier Sports Cup to squeeze in too. That will be difficult, but for me it comes down to mentality to continually do it.
“I think the fans will have the time of their lives. The last group stage was 2004/05 so that’s 18 years since fans can get the draw and say: ‘That’s where I’m going.’ That is brilliant for them and I’m sure they’ll enjoy it. Hopefully we can give them some good nights.”
Memories like Basel in 2004, when Neilson scored what remains Hearts’ last goal in a European group-stage tie to secure a 2-1 win. “I remember very little. It was cold that night,” he recalled
“It was a great night with the fans all in the corner, afterwards you saw them all outside. What an experience for them. That might have been my first goal for Hearts. There wasn’t many of them!
“I remember travelling away and coming back and playing Wednesday-Saturday. For me, players can do it, it’s just about believing that they can do it.”
No-one is under any illusion that Hearts are largely European novices. Goalkeeper Craig Gordon, midfielder Andy Halliday and winger Gary Mackay-Steven are the only players in the squad with recent experience of UEFA club tournaments.
The aim is to gain knowledge and awareness over the coming weeks, learn how to deal with demanding travelling, and then make this a regular occurrence. Squad size is increasing with that plan in mind and supporters are understandably relishing the prospect of foreign escapades.
“It’s just different. You go into these games as underdogs in these places,” said Neilson.” Then you go and win. The fans are all out eight hours before getting ready and enjoying it and sending them home happy is really important.
“That’s why fans go to Ross County and Inverness to help us get to this stage. They get that experience of going away and I’d expect us to take a few thousand to these away games. Hopefully they’ll enjoy it.
“We want to do it consistently. That will be the hardest bit. Trying to balance these European games and trying to maintain an automatic qualification spot. The European games will be great. We want to try to progress and win as many as we can, but we also want to maintain and keep progressing in the league.
“This is why we need to have a big squad. If we need to change two or three players we are still strong for the game on the Sunday. That is the balancing act.”