Olly Lee eager to help Hearts fly the flag in Europe next season

Hearts midfielder Olly Lee has been encouraged by the new-look Gorgie side's early-season form. Picture: SNS.
Hearts midfielder Olly Lee has been encouraged by the new-look Gorgie side's early-season form. Picture: SNS.
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Hearts new boy Olly Lee has been following the Scottish clubs in the early rounds of European competition with more than a tinge of envy.

But watching Celtic, Rangers and Hibs progress and Aberdeen earn plaudits for their showing against Burnley, has simply made him even more focused on delivering a similar level of football to Tynecastle next term.

“It makes me a little bit jealous to be honest. I want to be a part of it,” said the midfielder, who joined the capital club from Luton and is one of a raft of fresh arrivals in Gorgie this summer. “Hopefully next season, it will be us and everybody can be watching us playing.

“When I came up and spoke to the manager, that was what he mentioned and that was a big pull for me coming here. At Luton, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to play European football. Hopefully, on the back of a good season, we will be playing European football and it will be great.”

It will require marked improvement. Forced to settle for sixth place in the Premiership last term, manager Craig Levein has made sweeping changes in the hope they can make a brighter start to the upcoming campaign and put pressure on the teams who finished comfortably above them, in the European slots.

But, while Levein refused to get carried away and was reticent about placing a target on his own back with bold predictions, preferring instead to wait until after the first 11 fixtures to gauge where his men can realistically aim, Lee said that the dressing room was united in their objectives, claiming that a European slot had to be the goal.

That does not mean that he is blase about the challenge that will face them, as they try to gel swiftly and build on their Betfred Cup progress

“There is a lot of competition up here, a lot of good sides, and it’s a case of us going out on to the pitch and showing what we are capable of,” he said.

“With the squad we have seen so far in pre-season, when it all comes together, we are a good side. There will be ups and downs throughout the season, as there is at any time, but we are very confident.”

Unlike last season, they have safely negotiated the group stage of the Betfred Cup, and albeit against lower league opposition, the new-look side has gradually offered their fans more and more promise. Even the gloom that threatened to descend due to the possible departure of last season’s top scorer Kyle Lafferty has been dispelled by the form of Uche Ikpeazu, who has looked bright and linked up well with colleagues. He has also weighed in with three goals in three games.

“I think I can speak for me and Uche, coming from down south,” said Lee. “We see it as a big step up. It’s a big place to play at. We are really excited. You can see the passion when Uche scores and gives us 12 different celebrations! It would be nice if I could hopefully join him with a few. I don’t score enough but hopefully this season that will change.

“I tried to celebrate with him after his first one [against Inverness Caledonian Thistle] but I couldn’t catch him. He’s a great guy with great energy. He’s really positive and enjoys his football. He enjoys being out there and trains really hard. He’s a pleasure to be around. We’ve got a lot of big characters in the dressing room. It’s a good place to be.”

Those goals give Ikpeazu momentum and the victories they helped garner do likewise for the whole team.

“It breeds confidence,” added Lee. “With 13 new players coming in, that’s what you need. You need to hit the ground running and get off to a good start. Uche has been brilliant so far. Hopefully he will carry it through the season and score as many goals as he can.”

The league campaign does get going today, with Hearts away to Hamilton in their opener. Lee hopes they can carry that momentum into the head to head and build on it.

“I think we all know what’s needed,” he said. “Everyone knows the expectation. Everyone knows that we’re playing for a massive club. That’s the reason we have come. You don’t come up here if you are going to be scared of that. You have to thrive on it and you have to look forward to it. That’s what I can’t wait to do.”

The plastic pitch at Hamilton does not blunt that enthusiasm, either, even if it does have him dredging the memory banks for a similar experience. “I haven’t played on astroturf in a competitive game since I was about 16 but it doesn’t make any difference. It’s 11 v 11, it’s a round ball. Put it in the goal. That’s it,” said Lee.

“That’s all part of playing in Scotland. But we are footballers. We have been used to playing in car parks, school fields. It’s probably not ideal but you go out and you do your job.”