In a week where Scottish participation in Europe has been an issue of great political contention, the same issue can at least be celebrated in a sporting sense tonight as European football returns to Tynecastle for the first time in four years.
It’s an oft-repeated sentiment these days, but when you consider what the club has been through since our last Europa League trip to Anfield in 2012, the fact that three years ago today there was a Fans’ Rally to help save its very existence, the turnaround in fortunes has been nothing short of remarkable. While I am hopeful…no, make that confident…that we will enjoy further success under the current management team, tonight represents an important milestone in the club’s restoration.
While the significance of this night cannot be overstated, supporters will nevertheless be hoping for more than just a brief flirtation with the competition, with the group stages representing the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, the recent track record of Scottish clubs in Europe has been one largely unblemished by success, meaning in order to realise those group stage ambitions, clubs such as ourselves and Aberdeen have to negotiate no fewer than four two-legged qualifying rounds, including what will likely be a playoff tie against another heavyweight in the Liverpool/Spurs mould. It’s a tall order that only serves to perpetuate the shocking Scottish coefficient, but going by John Robertson’s comments the other day, it is a challenge Robbie Neilson and his management team are fully prepared for.
“I think the group stages is Robbie’s aim. There’s no doubt about that. I’ve seen his planning for pre-season and it’s in line with trying to qualify for the group stages… That’s the plan. They’ve recruited well so far and I’m sure they’ll continue to recruit well. Everyone is fit and will give themselves the best chance possible to qualify.”
In order to keep those chances alive, however, Hearts will first have to negotiate their way past FC Infonet of Estonia. So what do we know about tonight’s opponents? Aside from the fact they are based in Tallinn, were founded as recently as 2002, once won a game 36–0 and currently sit second in the Estonian domestic league, they are a relatively unknown quantity. Usually in these circumstances, you can look at the other team and pick out one or two players you recognise from years gone by, though in this case, unless you are an extreme football hipster or Eastern European football aficionado, their line-up — consisting largely of Estonian and Russian domestic journeymen — is unlikely to throw up any familiar faces.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be written off as mere cannon fodder. For starters, it is worth noting that Infonet are 17 matches into their domestic season and will have the benefit of greater competitive match sharpness. In terms of potential danger men, striker Vladimir Voskoboinikov appears to be their greatest attacking threat, having scored six times in his 14 appearances so far.
Within the wider Infonet squad (which contains a blend of youth and experience very similar to ours) players such as Voskoboinikov, Dmitri Kruglov, Aleksandr Dmitrijev and Sergei Mosnikov have all represented the Estonian national side on many occasions and, with plenty international experience under their belts, are unlikely to be fazed by a preliminary Europa League tie. Any notion that Hearts can simply turn up and brush this team aside should therefore be nipped in the bud, something Jack Hamilton (who will don the number one jersey for the first time tonight) was keen to stress:
“Tonight is a massive game for the club and a massive game for myself. I’m just trying to prepare like it’s any other match. We have to go out and do the job properly. Just because we don’t know much about this Estonian team doesn’t mean we go in half-heartedly. We have to give it our all, like we do every day in training and in every game.”
One thing I am certain of is that no stone will have been left unturned in Robbie Neilson’s pre-match preparations and that he’ll have done his homework on our opponents well in advance of tonight. As far as the players are concerned, assuming Hamilton’s colleagues share his focus on the task at hand and are as prepared as Robbo suggests they are, we should be heading to Tallinn next week with a (hopefully comfortable) lead.
Anyway, that’s enough pre-match talk for one day. If you’re going to the game tonight, enjoy it — you’ve earned the right to. In the meantime, here’s a wee reminder of our last foray into European football to get you in the mood.
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on June 30, 2016.