Guessing game frustrates Jim Jefferies

SCOTLAND's system of qualification for Europe works against the successful teams, Jim Jefferies believes. With four games to go in the SPL, sixth-placed Hearts could finish in one of the Europa League places – but they may have to wait until after the Scottish Cup final to find out.

The uncertainty arises because Ross County will qualify for Europe instead of the team which comes fifth in the SPL team if they win the cup final or if their opponents, Dundee United, win the cup and come second in the league. Because of that uncertainty, Hearts have three separate timetables planned for pre-season training according to whether they finish fourth, fifth and in Europe, or fifth or sixth and not in Europe.

If Hearts go into the Europa League as Scotland's lowest-ranked team, their first match will be in mid-July, six weeks or so before the start of the domestic season. But whether it is his club or another which faces that problem, Jefferies thinks a more helpful arrangement has to be found for the sake of the game.

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"It's a ridiculous situation that you have got to wait until 15 May before you know what is going to happen," he said yesterday. "There must be a better system than that.

"We have next season's preparations to make. We don't know when we are going to have to come back. We don't know what games we will be involved in.

'Don't get me wrong. We're not saying we don't want to be involved, but it does cause a few complications. First you have to wait until the end of the season.

"Then if you lose your first game there is a big void to fill before the start of the season. Those are the problems, but at the end of the day I suppose we'll take it if it means getting into Europe, because that's what we want to do."

Hearts will edge closer to a European place if they beat Motherwell tomorrow, and would receive a further boost if Hibernian were to lose to Rangers on Sunday. "The other games will become tougher if we don't get a result this weekend," Jefferies accepted.

"But if we can get a win against Motherwell, which won't be easy, and Rangers go on and clinch the title at Hibs, then with three games to go it is going to be really tight. If it was to go against us and then the other result did as well, it would be really difficult for us with three games to go. So this is the big one, and I am sure the other clubs are saying the same thing. Everybody is aware this is a massive, massive game for us.

"For us to have fought so hard with the injuries we have had and to have got into the top six was great. Now to be in with a shout of catching Hibs when you consider we were 20-odd points back at one stage is fantastic. So we will have a go and I need to make sure the players realise that we intend to do that."

Most of those injuries have now cleared up, with the result that, for the first time since he returned as manager, Jefferies can see competition for places throughout the team. Goalkeepers Marian Kello and Janos Balogh, winger Andrew Driver and defender Jose Goncalves are still out through injury, Eggert Jonsson is suspended, and Calum Elliot is a doubt because of a knee knock, but that still leaves more players available than at most times this season.

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"I didn't expect to have all these boys back and the competition for places is boiling up now for these last four matches," Jefferies added. "Michael Stewart has had another week of training with us, as has Ryan Stevenson. It's a big change to when I came here, because we have competition for every position. So all I have now is a selection headache, which I don't mind."