Robbie Neilson remembers coming on as a first-half substitute against Stuttgart. Aged just 20 it was an evening of European drama at Tynecastle as the capital side pulled off a shock result and almost defied the odds. But despite beating the Bundesliga side 3-2 on the night, a one-goal deficit from the first leg meant they were undone by the away goals rule.
It still served as a wonderful introduction to that level of competition and an education in how to handle it, according to the man who will now swap playing on the European stage for managing on it, as Hearts open the new season with a Europa League qualifier against FC Infonet under the Gorgie floodlights tomorrow.
“I came on against Stuttgart and that was a great night in front of a full house,” he said. “We just missed out and lost on away goals. That was my first experience of European football at Tynecastle and it was great.
“The key thing is not to get carried away with it. Treat it as a normal game. Don’t get caught up in the rigmarole and the hype.”
Against Stuttgart, Hearts had the advantage of knowing what was required and the bonus of being able to go for it in front of a vocal, partisan, home crowd. This season, they will have to be the ones to set out their stall, attempting to lay the foundations and give themselves something to build on when they travel to Tallinn for the second leg.
“It is a game we need to go and win. So we must make sure we are disciplined and do the right things,” added Neilson. “Coaching against experienced coaches from abroad with different styles and different players is great. It gives you experience. You go and watch your opponents on video and speak to people about them to try and learn. For all of us, it is a great learning curve.
“There has been a huge turnaround here in the last two years. We have managed to get out of the Championship and reach the Premiership and then qualify for Europe and now we are playing European football. For all the players, it has been a great learning curve. It is great for the fans as well. As a player, going abroad for European games was phenomenal. You used to meet fans out there and speak to them. It is one of the highlights of the season for the supporters.
“They backed us when we went to Alloa, Queen of the South and Livingston. Now they are getting the chance to go abroad and back us as well, getting a holiday and hopefully seeing a good game.”
But first a team with no competitive games under their belt yet this term and with little experience of European club competition must adapt quickly and hit the ground running.
Despite their relatively short run up to the season opener Neilson says that his players are fit and ready to go, while midfielder Perry Kitchen is up to speed and returns to training today following his Copa America endeavours with USA.
“We’ll get a training session with him then he’ll be ready for Thursday night,” said Neilson. “He’ll definitely be part of it, whether he starts or not he’ll definitely be on the bench. He’s ready to go. He’s trained right through.”
Having had the mid-season break, between the end of his MLS career and joining Hearts at the beginning of the year, he is still fresh and, more importantly, match fit, while the limited turnaround in players means he can slot effortlessly back into the line-up against an Estonian team Neilson believes will make life tricky.
“We know quite a lot about them but like anything in Europe you’re going into the unknown a bit,” he added. “They change formations and styles so it’ll be a tough 90 minutes. They’re quite a dominant team in the league, they’ve spent a bit of a money over the last couple of years and brought in a lot of internationals and ex-internationals so they’re a very experienced team so they know how to win football matches.
“But the players are looking forward to it. It’s a different type of football, you’re looking at different players. You’re trying to figure out what they’ll do. It’s fresh and exciting.”