Goals were not common currency for Robbie Neilson as a player but he did contribute a notable strike in European competition.
In 2004, a blistering 89th-minute strike gave the Tynecastle club victory over FC Basel. He plays it down as a fortunate deflection but whether it was good luck or great finishing, it sparked celebrations among the travelling support and players before the former Hearts regime gatecrashed the dressing room and insisted the music be turned off and and feet remain planted on the ground. It meant the joy was somewhat short-lived.
Twelve years on and with Neilson preparing for another European foray, the Hearts head coach recognises the effort of all involved in securing their shot at the Europa League and says that every success will be savoured.
“That was the dark days,” he says, looking back. “We were in a transition period and if we do get a result this time then we’ll keep the music on!”
There are still three games to be played before the season can be signed off, starting with this afternoon’s visit by Ross County. But already Hearts are switching their attentions to next term.
Stuck in third, safe from the chasing pack and unable to peg back runners-up Aberdeen, the run-in allows manager Neilson to rest some players, who have been playing through niggling injuries, and give others valuable game time.
“Young guys will get an opportunity. I think that’s important before they finish up and Igor Rossi, for example, has been struggling for the last two months and that’s probably him done for the season. We don’t have a long break. We’re back in four weeks’ time, so a few of the players need managed at this stage.
“It’s the way football is going nowadays. You used to get eight to ten weeks off. In England they still get a long time but it’s shorter here, especially if you’re in Europe.”
European football may be a welcome and hard-earned adventure but it will require a shift in emphasis and a more flexible playing style. The Hearts manager acknowledges that and will have that in mind as he reshuffles his squad and adds summer recruits. It is all part of the ongoing evolution at the club, he says.
“Last season in the Championship the games were different. You get a lot more possession and the style of play is different. You’re never really sure how the players will handle it. We’ll review things at the end of the season and work out what we can do better, then give us an opportunity to improve.
“Even in Scotland you need to play different styles of football and you need to play against different teams. You play against some teams that let you play and then you play against some that don’t let you play at all. You need to cover the two bases and I think that’s been one of the problems this season that we haven’t really been able to flit between the two.
“But it will be the same next year in Europe and, depending on what team you play and what country they come from it will be a different style of football, so we need more flexible players.
“Although the budget will be good, it’s not big enough to carry 30 players and to be honest I don’t want to. It’s about getting better quality.”
Setting a goal of reaching the group stages, he says he is happy that Tynecastle will host the big games, with the plans for the stadium revamp, ensuring there will be no need to head back to Murrayfield.
They did not have that luxury in 2004, with the national rugby stadium the venue for the group game against Schalke.
The stadium will cover all the bases now, so playing European games at Murrayfield would no longer be an issue, stresses Neilson, who was also buoyed by the fact that owner Ann Budge has promised that the stadium redevelopment will not impact of his football budget.
“Having played at Tynecastle on big European nights, it is night and day,” he said. “You go to Murrayfield and you could have 25,000 but it still feels like no-one is there because of the size of the stadium. The fans and anyone who has played here wanted to stay at Tynecastle and it’s good news that we’ll be here for a very long time.”