Conor Sammon is happy for Hearts to shoulder the burden of restoring Scotland’s footballing credibility in Europe. The nation’s UEFA co-efficient has taken a pounding in recent years and the Irishman believes his new club can reverse the trend.
Celtic’s Champions League humiliation against Lincoln Red Imps is the latest tale in a long series of woes. Early exits in qualifying rounds have become routine for Scottish clubs. Celtic were knocked out by Malmo last year, Motherwell lost to Stjarnan of Iceland, while Hibs’ humbling against Malmo in 2013 is still fresh enough in the mind.
Of course, these are just a few examples. Hearts are trying to make inroads towards the Europa League groups. They eliminated Infonet of Estonia and will be confident of seeing off Birkirkara after Thursday’s goalless first-leg in Malta. The prospect of a trip to southern Russia to face FC Krasnodar in the third round of Europa League qualifying is daunting, though.
Sammon is staying positive, eager to extend Hearts’ European run for as long as possible. He feels a definite sense of responsibility. “It would be fantastic for Scottish football if we can keep progressing,” he said. “Aberdeen won 3-0 on Thursday as well, which was a really good result and it is fantastic to see Scottish sides doing well. We want to be one of those teams that goes all the way and we are working really hard towards that. Roll on Thursday night and, hopefully, we will do the business and progress to the next round.”
Sammon carries the aura of a man thriving on the adrenalin of European football. He joined Hearts on a three-year contract last month after leaving Derby County and knew he would likely be propelled instantly into European ties. He has started all of them so far.
“This is my first experience of a European campaign, which is fantastic. It is something you want to experience in your career,” said the 29-year-old. “You look at some of these teams on paper and people might say ‘you are playing a team from Estonia or Malta’ and look down on them. We have been really respectful and we know how good these teams can be. We want to keep going.
“I joined Derry after they had played in Europe – then I think they played in Europe after I left. I managed to miss out. It’s great to come to a club that is playing in Europe and finally experience that.”
Sammon believes Hearts have prevailed in the Europa League qualifiers so far because of thorough planning. Head coach Robbie Neilson and his staff prepared meticulously against Infonet and Birkirkara to ensure the best possible chance of progress.
“That comes from the manager and the coaching staff,” explained the forward. “They make sure we are informed on the opposition and the job that he wants us to do. There is never a stone left unturned and we are prepared. That’s nice. You are on the pitch and everyone is quite vocal talking to each other, discussing when it is time to sit in and be a bit more patient. We have a lot of young players but it is really pleasing to see them excel in these tough games. I thought Liam Smith was outstanding and there are a lot of positives.”
Is Hearts’ structure and forward planning different to the stereotypical Scottish club in Europe? “You could look at it as being a bit different. Coming in, you can see it is working really well, there is a great relationship between the players and they have respect for the manager and coaching staff.
“That comes from the success of the last couple of years and growing together. For me, coming into that is really exciting to be a part of.”
For Sammon, there is one small detail still needing attended to. His first Hearts goal has yet to arrive. He did find the net in Malta but was flagged offside. It left him somewhat irked as he left the island.
“Straight away I thought it was a good goal. I glanced over quite quickly and I saw the linesman with his flag up,” said Sammon. “I’ve looked at the video and it’s quite difficult to tell from the footage we have, but it looks really tight. I still think I’m onside.
“It’s just one of those things that sometimes go against you. You come in wanting to hit the ground running and you want to score as soon as you can. Whether it was or wasn’t onside, it doesn’t really matter. It’s nice that I did put it away, even though it was given offside. It just gets me into that habit of taking chances. I’m excited for the upcoming games and hopefully I’ll get my first goal.”