Two years of sheer toil and sweat have brought Hearts to Tallinn with an opportunity to reach the Europa League second qualifying round. Leading FC Infonet 2-1 from the first round, first leg, at Tynecastle, there is an obvious desire to avoid seeing all the hard work undone tonight.
Full-back Callum Paterson has been a key component throughout the rebuilding. A Championship title win, promotion and then a place in Europe inside two years underline rapid progress at a club where, not so long ago, administrators worked and liquidators lurked.
Paterson is a remnant from before Hearts entered administration in June 2013. He recalls the euphoria of their last European encounter four years ago. Facing Liverpool at Anfield always carries a fair amount of glamour. Infonet cannot boast such prestige, but negotiating this round is the first step on a long ladder which could potentially lead to those giddy heights again.
The tie remains balanced on a knife edge. Hearts trained at Estonia’s Le Coq Arena last night – the second leg is taking place there because Infonet’s ground has insufficient capacity – knowing their first-leg advantage is precarious. One slip and all of last season’s endeavours to qualify for Europe could be negated.
“We’ve told all the new boys who have come in. We’ve all made our thoughts clear, that we worked hard to get here last season,” said Paterson. “This is where we wanted to be and we’re here now so we have to grasp this opportunity and try to get to the next round.
“There’s always pressure in football but it’s good pressure. It’s good to have people wanting you to win and that’s what we want. We were in the Championship last year and the year before that we nearly weren’t a club. We’ve come on leaps and bounds. This is a massive step for the club.
“We’re back in Europe, it’s where we’ve been before and it’s where we want to be. Football is an enjoyable sport. If you don’t enjoy it, then what’s the point? First and foremost, we want to win this game and hopefully enjoy it by winning it.”
To do so, a goal in Le Coq Arena is likely to be necessary. Possibly even more than one. Jevgeni Harin’s cushioned volley past Jack Hamilton last week gave Infonet the away goal they craved. Prince Buaben’s penalty and an own goal by Andrei Kalimullin overhauled Harin’s impressive opener and put Hearts in the driving seat. Whoever prevails will face the Maltese club Birkirkara in the second qualifying round next week.
“We showed Infonet respect. They were a good side,” added Paterson. “We never went into the game expecting them to be a bad side. You don’t get to where they are being a bad side. We showed them all the respect they deserved and we won the game.”
Having only started pre-season two weeks beforehand, 2-1 was a reasonable first-leg scoreline. Infonet were on a six-game winning run 17 games into the Estonian Meistriliiga campaign. “Of course, we were going to be rusty. We had the excuse of only being back in training for 12 days,” continued Paterson. “We did a good enough job to win the game and take two goals to the away leg. We’ve had six days more preparation now.
“A lot of people said it wasn’t a good game but, at the end of the day, we won it. We’re sitting in the front seat for the next leg. Of course we’ll need to score because 2-1 is the closest result you could have for a two-legged game, especially with them having the away goal. We need to score first and not concede at all. I believe we can do it.”
His summer break amounted to less than a fortnight due to international duty against Italy and France. He isn’t complaining. “I didn’t get a good break but I’d never give that up for anything in the world. Playing for your country is a massive thing and I really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t swap it for anything. To have such a short time off for that reason doesn’t bother me at all. I got about 12 days off so I managed a couple of short breaks. It was a sacrifice well made.”
Meanwhile, Jordan McGhee’s loan move from Hearts to Middlesbrough has been completed. The defender will spend next season on loan at the Riverside Stadium.
The English Premier League club have secured first option to sign McGhee next summer. A fee has been agreed should they decide to invoke the option since McGhee’s Hearts contract will expire next June.