Wolfsburg pose tough challenge for Hearts

Hearts manager Gary Locke played in their Uefa Cup tie against Stuttgart in 2000. Picture: Tony Marsh
Hearts manager Gary Locke played in their Uefa Cup tie against Stuttgart in 2000. Picture: Tony Marsh
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THE arrival of German opposition at Tynecastle tonight will provoke bittersweet memories for Billy Brown. The last time Hearts’ assistant manager was involved in a game against a Bundesliga club, the Scottish side beat Stuttgart 3-2 on the night but were eliminated from the Uefa Cup on away goals, having lost the first leg 1-0.

Tonight’s match against Wolfsburg, of course, is just a one-off friendly, the aim of which is to raise some cash to help Hearts through the winter. But Brown also hopes it will be a chance for Gary Locke’s young squad to find out how they measure up against a different kind of challenge from the ones they face domestically.

“Primarily, it is to raise as much money as we can,” he said when asked the purpose of tonight’s match. “As far as the game is concerned, we’re playing a team who beat Borussia Dortmund on Saturday, and Dortmund got to the final of the Champions League, so it’s a difficult game. But it’s an exciting game – it’s against someone we don’t play every week. They have top-class players everywhere.

“We’re struggling a wee bit team-wise, because we have three players away with the under-21s. But it will be exciting, and people are turning up to see one of the top teams in Germany.”

Besides the result last time, what Brown remembers best is over-ruling goalkeeper Antti Niemi, with unfortunate results. “I remember telling Antti to put Tomas Flogel on the post because they had a really good free-kick taker. He didn’t want to do it, but listened to me, and they scored from a free-kick right between the pair of them. So I won’t make the same mistake this time.”

Niemi is one of a string of excellent goalkeepers Brown has worked with during his three spells at Tynecastle, but the one he thinks had the greatest influence on the fortunes of the team as a whole was Gilles Rousset, who kept goal in the 1998 Scottish Cup final, when Hearts beat Rangers 2-1 at Celtic Park. “I worked with a lot of good keepers. Whether he was the best goalie or not, the biggest presence was Gilles Rousset.

“He was very influential. We were building our team here at the time, the club was changing and he came in at the right time. He was a big presence, a big man and a very nice man. Ability-wise Antti Niemi was outstanding. But, at the minute ,Jamie [MacDonald] is doing really well, he’s brilliant and, without him, we might have lost even more goals. He’s growing that presence, he’s been regular for a wee while and he doesn’t make many mistakes.”

MacDonald, who is expected to be rested tonight in order to allow his deputy Mark Ridgers some valuable game time, has provoked calls for him to be included in the Scotland squad on the back of some outstanding performances. But Brown is happy to leave that issue up to national manager Gordon Strachan, and accepts there are a number of genuine contenders.

“Gordon looks at all the games and knows what he’s doing. I’m sure if Jamie keeps doing what he’s been doing he’ll get his chance. “Aberdeen think Jamie Langfield should be there and Rangers feel Cammy Bell deserves a shot. So everyone makes a case for their man, but Gordon knows his job.

“Jamie is level-headed. He didn’t need any words of encouragement when he wasn’t in the squad.

“He’s a realist. He’s taken a long time to become Hearts’ regular keeper so he’s realistic about the situation. We think he should get a chance, but Gordon picks the squad and he’s making a not bad job of it.”

Having won at Aberdeen four days ago, Hearts have a break after this evening’s match until playing host to Ross County on Saturday week. Brown would rather they returned to league action sooner, but accepts the break from competitive games may come in useful. “We’d love to have a league game this weekend after getting such a good win over Aberdeen. We’ve taken a lot of confidence from that. We’d love a league game but we won’t get one, so we’ll enjoy this game and have a wee rest before going again in the league.”

Tickets for tonight’s match are available up to the 7:30pm kick-off. Adult tickets are £15, concessions £7, and under-12s £2. All profits go towards the running of the club.