An exciting climax to the season seems certain at Tynecastle with league placing and Scottish Cup success both offering entry to the Europa League qualifiers.
For a club with designs on being Scotland’s third force, Europe is regarded as a must. It is encouraging, therefore, that two avenues to the continent remain open. Provided Hearts finish fifth or above in the SPL, or win the Scottish Cup, they will definitely secure a place in the Europa League’s qualifying rounds with Rangers precluded from competing abroad.
The prospect of a dramatic and ultimately successful finale to another tumultuous campaign will not be lost on manager Paulo Sergio or his players. They will sense the possibility for a glorious few weeks between now and May, and beating Hibs would be the perfect launchpad for their mission.
“One of the main targets for a club like Hearts is Europe,” said Colin Cameron, a member of the 1998 Scottish Cup-winning team who appeared six times for Hearts in European competition. “Silverware is a big thing and if they get through against St Mirren in the cup replay next week, they have to face Celtic. Inevitably, to win the cup you have to beat Rangers or Celtic at some stage. But Hearts are still in the hat which is the main thing.
“In the league they are in there challenging and if they can finish the season strongly they can qualify for Europe. That will bring more people in through the gate and it will reward the fans who have stuck by the club through all the uncertainty this year.
“Paulo will be saying to his team not to focus on the derby but purely to concentrate on getting three points. Yes, the Edinburgh derby carries a lot of hype and that’s part of it. But, for Hearts, it’s another game and an opportunity to get another three points in the league to put them in a stronger position for European football.
“As long as there’s something to play for then there’s motivation for players, whether it be trying to finish high enough to get into Europe or to stay in a cup competition. On top of that, guys who are coming to the end of their contracts will be playing for a contract for the following season.
“These are all causes to be playing for in the case of every single Hearts player and you need that. Every player has his own self motivation but you want to be part of a successful team. The only way to do that is by getting into Europe or cup finals. That’s how you can be seen as successful.”
The worst-case scenario for Hearts would be finishing sixth in the SPL and seeing Hibs win the Scottish Cup, thereby denying the Tynecastle club a European place. The only way sixth place would guarantee Europe is if Aberdeen win the cup and finish above Hearts in the league. In reality, those in Gorgie are unlikely to complain if either a cup win or their final league position propels them into the Europa League. The case for lifting the cup grows stronger when the various entry points for the Europa League are laid bare. Scotland’s cup winners are scheduled to take their place in the tournament’s play-off round – the final hurdle before the group phase – the first leg of which takes place on August 23. The team finishing fourth in the SPL would begin at the previous stage, the third qualifying round, on August 2. For whoever finishes fifth, there is the unenviable prospect of beginning a European campaign on July 17 or 18 in the second qualifying round.
In terms of prestige, Cameron believes there is only one option. “I think the cup would be Hearts’ preference because it means you’re winning silverware,” he said. “They could qualify for Europe via the league but strictly speaking they wouldn’t have anything to show for it. If you win the cup, you’ve got the day out at the final, celebrations afterwards, a trophy and a medal to show off. That’s the more glamorous way to do it out of the two options.
“The bread and butter is the league, though. If Hearts reach Europe through the league they probably deserve it more than by winning the cup. Winning the cup only requires getting through four rounds then the final. If you get there through your league placing it means you’ve been consistent throughout the whole season.” The adrenalin of chasing Europe as spring sets in is the perfect antidote to fatigue. Hearts players have suffered an arduous season with well-publicised off-the-field financial issues at the club. But it is testament to their character that they remain in such a strong position entering the final weeks of the campaign.
“I enjoyed it at this time of the season and the games were coming think and fast,” continued Cameron, now managing the Second Division leaders Cowdenbeath. “I always say it’s better to play than train. When I played down south you played midweek matches almost every week and there was a lot more travelling involved. I relished the rigours of midweek football.
“If fatigue sets in then the manager has to utilise his squad. It’s great when you have something to play for at this stage. Fatigue is more a mental problem than physical with players. Some are stronger than others mentally. Some players start to flag because mentally they aren’t quite as strong. You can see some of them thinking, ‘this has been a long season and I just want it to end’.
“When you have two ways of getting into Europe, via the league or the cup, you find that mental edge stays with you and keeps you focused.”