The head coach yesterday recalled players bursting into the dressing room to check where they now stood after adding another three goals to Hearts’ first-leg advantage of 2-1.
It is a slightly more straightforward scenario against Birkirikara in tomorrow night’s Europa League second qualifying round tie, since the aggregate score is currently 0-0. But 1-1 would mean Hearts’ Maltese opponents go through, as would any scoring draw. Neilson, pictured right, stressed that a group of players so inexperienced when it comes to playing in Europe need to be switched on at all times.
By referring to the confused scenes at half-time against Infonet earlier this month, Neilson wasn’t meaning to question the intelligence of his players. Rather, he was pointing out how, in the heat of the battle, it is often easy to lose sight of where things stand. Hearts ended up winning the tie against the Estonian club in fairly comfortable fashion with a 4-2 second-leg victory.
For the head coach as well as the players, Europe is proving a learning experience. Although he tasted this environment as a player, Neilson now has to worry about more than just his own game. He has credited Craig Levein with help, the current director of football having picked up plenty of experience – often hard-earned – while playing continental opposition during his reign as Scotland manager.
“It is a different kind of football and it’s about trying to get that over to the players,” Neilson said yesterday.
“In the previous game against Infonet, when we came in at half-time over there winning 3-0, the boys were asking ‘what’s the score overall, what do we need to get and what do they need to get?’
“Even our experienced players, such as Don Cowie and Conor Sammon, haven’t played in Europe before, so it takes a little bit getting used to. It’s trying to work out all those sorts of things. Everything’s a learning curve for us all.”
If Neilson has a message for the fans, it is please stay patient. It is something he has been seeking to imbue in the players, for whom the default setting is perhaps playing at 100 mph. That gets you nowhere in Europe, where a more studied, pragmatic style of football tends to be king.
“When you play in the Scottish game it is really open and everything is 100 mph and it is all about trying to win the game. When you play in Europe a lot of teams are not really interested in winning; they just do not want to get beaten. They want to see it through to the next leg, like Birkirkara did. They were content with a 0-0 to try and take it to the next leg.
“I think patience (is the key),” he added, with reference to the supporters as well as players. “But also we need to make sure we play at a good tempo and move the ball quickly and try to win the game.
“It will be difficult, in that we expect them to come over and sit in, similar to what they did in their home leg.
“So, the onus is on us to try to break them down – but we have to try to do that without over-committing. It will take patience from everyone. Yes, we want to win the game and we want to score in the first five minutes. But it might take 85 minutes.
“These teams are very good at sitting in and making it difficult for you. We have to understand that and we have to make sure we have tempo in our game and move the ball quickly. But we can’t be gung-ho.”
Hearts are playing for the prize of a tie against Russian side FC Krasnodar, but Neilson can’t be deflected by such thoughts. He will leave that to the administrative staff at Tynecastle, who have to look beyond the next game in order to make plans for this potential journey.
“At the moment we are just concentrating on Thursday night,” he said. “Yes the staff here are starting to have a look at it (Russia) but from the playing perspective Thursday night is the most important. Hopefully we can get that out of the way then start to think about Russia.”
With moves to sign Tony Watt on a season-long loan from Charlton Athletic nearing conclusion, Neilson also confirmed Marcel Appiah, who can play at either centre-back or right-back, took part in a recent closed-doors game against Sunderland.
“He’s in on trial,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of centre-halves in on trial, it’s an area I’m trying to recruit in. We’ll take a look at him over the rest of the week and then I’ll make a decision on him.”