'We are going there to win.' Onus on Hearts after European embarrassments for Motherwell and Dundee United
Recent and raw European humiliations for Motherwell and Dundee United increase the responsibility on Hearts this week.
A Europa League play-off first leg against FC Zurich in St Gallen is the Edinburgh club’s first venture into UEFA competition in six years. They watched – probably in horror like many others – as Sligo Rovers embarrassed Motherwell and AZ Alkmaar skelped Dundee United in the Europa Conference League lately.
Those results render Hearts Scotland’s only European representatives from the domestic pack who chase Celtic and Rangers on a yearly basis. The challenge of proving that non-Glasgow teams can progress in continental combat rests squarely on their shoulders. It is a considerable burden to bear.
Not that there is any hint of intimidation at Riccarton. A two-year project to restore Hearts as Scotland’s third force began in the Championship when Robbie Neilson returned as manager. It gathered pace and reached breakneck speed in April when European group-stage football was guaranteed through reaching the Scottish Cup final.
After witnessing Motherwell humbled 3-0 on aggregate by Irish league opposition, then United's 7-0 second-leg reverse to complete a 7-1 thumping by the Dutch, Hearts know much of Scotland’s attention is now fixed on them.
They have the luxury of a Europa Conference League group berth should they fall at this play-off hurdle, but their mindset is not to rely on any safety net. “I get why people would think that but Zurich are a very good team with some great players,” explained defender Stephen Kingsley.
“The draw could have been better or it could have been a lot worse. Our mentality is that, whoever we go and play, if we're organised and do our jobs and play the way we can, then we've got a chance.
“There is a bit of pressure on us, especially if you look at the other Scottish teams playing in Europe so far. There is pressure on you to put in a performance and show what you're capable of.
“You already know some of the teams you could get in the groups and they are massive. It's exciting but it's a challenge we are absolutely up for. We aren't just there to make up the numbers. We are going there to win, not just to enjoy the occasion.
“We can enjoy it now. We can enjoy the experience, the lead-up to the game, but prepare the right way. It's something different. We worked so hard for it last season and now we play the Swiss champions. We want to showcase what we've got and do ourselves proud. We will work really hard on preparation to be 100 per cent.”
Kingsley himself may not be completely 100 per cent fit having only returned from a niggling summer hamstring problem as a substitute on Sunday against Dundee United. It was his first competitive appearance of the campaign.
“To be quite honest, I thought I was going to miss both of these European ties. I had that in the back of my head. That's what happens when you get injured, it's an emotional response,” he admitted.
“You think: 'Oh, no!' The timing of it just before the season started was gutting. Once it settled down, we got the scan and it wasn't as bad as we thought. I did all I could to speed the recovery along and now I've got some minutes on Sunday, which was great.
“I knew I would play European football eventually because we are guaranteed to be in the groups until November. It was just that special game in the Europa League play-off that I haven't experienced before. I was really looking forward to playing in this one so I'm just glad the injury wasn't as bad as we feared. I'll hopefully be ready to go on Thursday.”
The left-back’s sterling performances and sumptuous free-kicks have been an endearing feature at Tynecastle Park during this two-year rejuvenation. It isn’t difficult to understand his anxiousness over taking part in the rewarding bit after contributing so much to achieving it.
“There was a long-term project to get this club back to where it should be and now we're reaping the rewards of that. We are playing a team like Zurich and we will see who else we get going forward,” said Kingsley.
“It's a massive achievement that we got back to this stage so quick. This is when the real hard work starts with the games coming up but everybody is ready and excited for it. We're champing at the bit.
“It wasn't as much a gamble as you'd think when I joined Hearts. If you look at where I was before then you could maybe say that but I struggled a lot with injuries. The manager here put the project to me and I just really believed in it.
“I just wanted to play for a club like Hearts who had a project of where they were going to get to. It was exciting and being home with family was massive for me as well. This is a massive occasion for all of us, not just myself, but boys who have just come to the club like Jorge Grant. We are all pushing to make the next step.”
That next step is the Europa League groups if they can negotiate a way past the Swiss champions. Zurich curiously sit bottom of their domestic league with no wins in five games, but Kingsley refuses to be drawn into any sense of security regarding this tie.
“I watched both games against Linfield [in the previous round] so I have a rough idea of how they play. They are all very good technical players with some pacey forwards. They are a typical European team who look very dangerous on the break. We will need to be at it.
“Their No.10 looked pretty sharp and quite creative. The young lad [Wilfried Gnoto] is Italy's youngest ever scorer and he has good movement.
“I've had a good look at where we are playing and it's a beautiful stadium. It's going to be a great occasion. The Hearts fans travelling will be out on their numbers but we really want to give a good account of ourselves and get the win.”