“The thing I remember most about that game is that I’d hurt my ankle and could hardly walk let alone run or tackle,” recalls Gary Locke as he casts his mind back to 2000 and the second leg of Hearts UEFA Cup tie against Stuttgart. “In the days leading up to the game my ankle had been up like a balloon but we had gone down to North Berwick to prepare and the gaffer, Jim Jefferies, told me I was playing. I was telling him there was no chance that I could hardly get on and off the bus but we had a few injuries so he wasn’t taking no for an answer and said I could just get painkilling injections!
“I think I had two or three of them and some tablets and when we got the first goal after about 15 minutes, I was feeling great but after half an hour the jags had started to wear off and I ended up going off and missing something like the next five games.”
In fact, it would be another two months before Locke would see out a full 90 minutes, but that would possibly have been a price worth paying, had things gone as hoped that night at Tynecastle.
Just as Hearts have returned home from the first leg of this season’s Europa League play-off tie against FC Zurich, trailing 2-1 but confident they are capable of overhauling that single goal deficit when they meet again on Thursday, in Gorgie, the 2000/01 squad, lost 1-0 in Germany but, back in the capital, were driven by the same self-belief and an amped up Tynecastle crowd.
Providing the kind of energy that could have powered the floodlights, the home support created an atmosphere that spurred Hearts on.
It was a symbiotic relationship with the team providing the early optimism, through an early Steven Pressley goal.
“The gaffer and Billy [Brown, the Hearts assistant manager] said they had noticed in the first leg that they weren’t that comfortable at set pieces and they would not have expected Kevin James to come into the team and they couldn’t handle the height in our team or the fact that we got at them that night,” adds the club ambassador.
The 6ft 7in defender was elevated to the starting line-up for the first time in just over a year, as Jefferies juggled personnel. Gordan Petric was moved up into the midfield, while striker Andy Kirk was pushed out to the left wing.
The bench was filled with youngsters, including a certain 20-year-old Robbie Neilson, who replaced Locke, and experienced players like Gary McSwegan and Stephane Adam, one of whom was carrying an ankle injury that had impeded training all week, while the other had not featured all season,
In a game where Hearts knew they needed to keep things tight at the back while scoring goals, it was far from ideal.
But the makeshift side proved stronger and more resilient than Stuttgart manager Ralf Rangnick anticipated. His side had planned to kill off the tie with an early goal but it was Hearts, deploying a high tempo, hard-tacking gameplan, who struck first.
“The gaffer and Billy had done their homework because the first goal came from a set piece,” recalls Locke. “And that gave us the momentum and gave the Hearts fans something to roar about.”
A Gary Naysmith corner was flicked on by James and Pressley headed home, but Stuttgart struck before half time and, getting a foothold in the game, they then edged their noses in front after the interval.
Hearts didn’t let them enjoy that advantage for long, though, hitting back four minutes later when Petric was the recipient of another James knock-on from another Naysmith corner.
“The noise from the crowd was something else,” says the former club captain and manager. “Ask any Hearts player or fan and they know what it can be like on a European night under the Tynecastle lights, especially when the players are putting the opposition under pressure and fighting for everything. It will be the same on Thursday if we can start well and we don’t give them time on the ball.
“When we got the third goal [from an 83rd-minute Colin Cameron penalty after Stuttgart had been reduced to 10 men] and then really went after the fourth which we needed to take us through because back then there was still the away goals rule, that was when the atmosphere in the ground became electric.
“And, we did have chances to win it.”
As Hearts threw everything at them, the Germans earned another red card. Under siege in the final minutes, Petric, Cameron and Grant Murray all came close but while Hearts enjoyed victory on the night, the visitors were the ones celebrating at the final whistle, as they progressed thanks to a superior away goals tally.
“That was the devastating part. We knew we had lost out to a good team but it still hurt,” remembers Locke, who is already relishing what might be on Thursday night. “The good thing for Robbie and the boys is that away goals don’t count extra anymore so they can go for it.”
Like Jefferies back in September 2000, Neilson will have to piece together a team without all his first choices, but Locke says that the manager will have his players primed and well aware of the 12th man advantage the home crowd can be if they are given something to get excited about.
“He will remember nights like that one against Stuttgart. If the players can start well the backing will be vociferous. And, if they pull it off, it will be a night none of the players will forget.”