Toby Sibbick eager to realise European dream as Hearts defender reflects on Edinburgh derby disappointment
When Hearts host Dundee United this Sunday it’ll be the last time Robbie Neilson’s side have a full week to recover between matches for over a month.
The Hearts squad will soon feel the sting of success with ten games coming in the space of 35 days as this weekend’s match at Tynecastle will soon be followed by the beginning of their European campaign.
FC Zurich are likely to be the challengers in the two-legged play-off after a first leg victory over Linfield in Belfast. Hearts seek to make the group stages of the Europa League but, regardless of whether they’re successful or not, they will be playing a further two games on the continent in early September due to the secondary prize of the Europa Conference League. There’s also the not-so-insignificant matter of the visit of Kilmarnock for the second round of the Premier Sports Cup and five Scottish Premiership fixtures prior to a break after the mid-September trip to Motherwell.
It’s going to place strong demands on the Hearts squad with management still seeking to beef out the numbers before the end of the transfer window. For players like Toby Sibbick, who’ve yet to have a taste of European competition, the added workload is a small price to pay for the realisation of a career ambition.
“Every player wants to play at the highest level and before I came here I was looking at the league position and knew the club could get to the Europa League,” he told the Evening News. “It was something I was looking into because if you play in the Europa League then you're playing against some of the best players in the world.
“We've got 24 games before the World Cup break and everyone is going to be needed. The team is going to be changed a lot and everyone needs to be ready. I'm just looking forward to the games coming up."
If Hearts are going to be paired against Zurich, the reigning Swiss League champions, then they’re going to have to perform better at both ends of the park than they did in Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Edinburgh rivals Hibs at Easter Road.
After a slow start, the away side took control of the game when Lawrence Shankland netted his first goal in a maroon jersey midway through the first half. The visitors then had a few chances at the beginning of the second period in which to put the game to bed. They failed to do so, getting deeper and deeper as time ticked on and eventually succumbed to a late equaliser, netted by Hibs hero Martin Boyle on his return to the club from Saudi side Al-Faisaly.
Even though Zurich have endured a rough beginning to their season, sitting with just one point and zero goals scored from four league games, they still possess enough quality in their squad to hurt Hearts (assuming they take care of Linfield) if given the opportunity to do so.
“When you play your rivals you always want to win. I think for the vast majority of the game we dominated. We could have scored a few more. They had a few chances but I think we had the better chances over the course of the game,” said Sibbick. “On another day we go 2-0 or 3-0 up and see out the game, but that's football. They kept pushing and pushing in the last 15-20 minutes. Luckily for them and unluckily for us they had a chance at the end and they were able to score.
“Of course we're kicking ourselves but at times in football it happens. You can't take every chance you get. But no doubt over the course of the season we'll take these chances and put games like this to bed. Everyone to a man worked extremely hard today so we'll take that as a positive, but obviously we're disappointed with the draw.”
European nights will also give supporters the chance to once again travel abroad to support their favourites, which will help shake off the disappointment of Sunday’s result. It’s been six years since Hearts were last involved on the continent. Fans are so filled with anticipation that flights to Zurich and Basel from Edinburgh have already sold out despite neither date nor opponent being confirmed.
“We felt the emotions from our fans,” said Sibbick of the backing the side had in the derby. “They were louder than the home team for the majority of the game. It just shows how much they were backing us. We took that into the game because we knew they would turn up for us. They were our 12th man for the majority of it, if not all of it.”
More matches will mean more opportunities for Sibbick to feature in the team. Signed from Barnsley on a three-and-a-half-year deal in January, the 23-year-old has so far been a squad rotation player in Gorgie. Having dropped to the bench after the win over Ross County due, in part, to a formation switch, his involvement against Hibs was limited to that of a substitute. He remains committed to rising above his current status and achieving a regular spot in the starting XI.
“Of course I'd like to nail down a starting place,” he admitted. “Everyone wants to keep their place in the team. But it's a team game, it's football, sometimes there's going to be chop and change. You just need to get your head down, keep working to get your spot back and that's what I aim to do.”