Having drawn Estonian side FC Infonet in the opening tie of their quest to make the group stages, they were initially scheduled to play the first leg, on 30 June, away from home, with the return leg being played at Tynecastle on 7 July but plans were thrown into disarray when, first, a swell of clubs all due to play in Tallinn forced a switch in the home and away legs, with the capital side now hosting next week’s encounter before flying out to Estonia to, hopefully, complete the job.
But the confusion and disgust was compounded when Uefa then brought that second leg match forward by 24 hours, meaning it will now be played on Wednesday, 6 July.
“It’s disappointing but Uefa make the final decision,” said the Hearts manager, well aware that those who moved quickly to buy airline tickets and accommodation will have been left trying to salvage the situation.
“We watched the draw and I’m sure a lot of fans were on websites booking flights and hotels and now it has to be changed I feel for them. I hope they haven’t lost a lot of money, but I think it’s something to do with the other clubs in Tallinn also being drawn to play on the same day and Infonet have the lowest co-efficient so they are the ones who have to move.”
Caught off guard by Uefa’s early interventions, he is adamant that his team will not be similarly ambushed by the side they face. Keen to make a real play for a place in the Europa League proper, the Tynecastle boss knows his men will have to safely navigate four ties to do that, and the preparation is already well underway with homework being done and information already being compiled.
“We’ve watched some of their games online so far and spoken to some people we already know in Estonia,” Neilson added.
“They are a team who have brought in a few internationalists recently and their average age is 28 so they are experienced and will sit in and make it difficult when they come here. They have invested to get their international players in and have won their last six games on the bounce so they are in good form and they are in the middle of their season so they are bang at it and ready to go.
“We have to be ready and realise we’re going into the game not quite at 100 per cent, but as close as we can get.”
A player on Hearts’ books as they tackled European ties in the past, Neilson knows the difficulty Scottish teams have in sustaining a meaningful run in the elite competitions .
But, while he claimed that making the Europa League group stage would be “a phenomenal achievement” for Hearts, Hibs or Aberdeen, he added that his side will take the qualifiers one game at a time in a determined effort to do just that.
“It’s difficult to progress through the rounds with our co-efficient, but the only way to progress is to win games although there are a lot of good teams out there and Infonet are one of them,” Neilson said. “They’ve spent a lot of money and brought in a few players.
“But it would be great for the club, phenomenal to get back to that stage so soon after administration. For the players, it’s a great learning curve and would be great for their CV and prestige. I hope they can go there and perform.”
The Hearts players are on a training camp in St Andrews as they try to get up to speed, but Neilson said the bonus will be the return of a fully match-fit Perry Kitchen early next week, following the conclusion of the Copa America. The midfielder has been in action for the USA, with the team facing a place in either the third/fourth place play-off or the final at the weekend.