Hearts boss relishing battle for European slot

VICTORY over Motherwell on Saturday would see Hearts creep within one point of the Lanarkshire club and make the race for Europe a real cliffhanger.

UEFA's complicated access system decrees that fifth place in the SPL will grant entry into the second qualifying round of next season's Europa League, provided that Dundee United can win the Scottish Cup and also finish no higher than third. Without wishing to go into too much detail, suffice to say Hearts' end-of-season targets are clear: Apply pressure on those above, namely Motherwell and Hibernian, whom they face in their next two fixtures.

Finishing fifth would be a notable achievement but overhauling their Edinburgh rivals – currently six points better off in fourth place – is not out of the question. Manager Jim Jefferies has delayed finalising his pre-season schedule in the hope of enjoying a fairytale climax to the campaign.

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"There are still twelve points to play for with four games left. Out of the teams within range, there is probably the least pressure on us," he said. "But pressure comes from within, we want to make a fight of it.

"I thought getting into the top six was a huge week and I said that was the most important.

"Now every week is a difficult game, every week is a big week. Expectation levels are high and that's right because we're a big club.

"It would just be a fantastic achievement to make Europe. Making the top six was good but Europe would be a great comeback after what went on earlier in the campaign."

Jefferies knows much hangs on the outcome of Saturday's engagement at Tynecastle. After losing at Ibrox last weekend, Hearts embark upon four winnable final fixtures – all in Edinburgh – three in Gorgie plus the derby at Easter Road.

The camaraderie often central to success in football has returned to the dressing-room, just in time for the European assault.

"We did well to make the top six with all the injuries we had," continued Jefferies.

"We were away from home in the first game after the split and Ibrox is not an easy place to pick up points. Hibs and Motherwell didn't get any further away from us last weekend, although there is a game fewer for us to close this gap.

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"I do think there's a little bit of a buzz going round our place. People seem to be enjoying things and it's been a great opportunity for us to come in at this time in the season.

"I was surprised when (Csaba] Laszlo went. If it hadn't been me taking the job it would have been somebody else, but I got the first opportunity to grab it and it was a great opportunity. We had the task of trying to get the team into the top six and, with all the injuries, it was never going to be easy for Laszlo, myself or any manager.

"We got there, that was the most important thing. The good thing now is it gives me a chance to look at players.

"I'm not going into next season wondering what this one or that one can do. The time since I came in has been invaluable to be in terms of what plans I can take forward.

"I've had close contact with the owner and everything has been fine so far. I'm happy, the pressure is off having made the top six, so we have some different targets. These games coming up are the ones where you want the players to step up to the plate because we want to be involved amongst the top teams next year."

Jefferies plans a mini revamp of the Hearts squad this summer but is reluctant to go public with his intentions while the season is ongoing. Having the scope to implement changes, widespread or otherwise, was something largely denied him at previous club Kilmarnock due to financial restrictions.

While Hearts will hardly be casting blank cheques into the wind, there is room for movement in the transfer market, which is a refreshing change for the manager.

"Everybody knows Michael Johnston (Kilmarnock chairman] is not a man who has the wealth of Vladimir Romanov. But nobody has come forward at Kilmarnock so Michael Johnston has had to continue. They don't have that (financial] facility so you have to work accordingly at times.

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"At Hearts, there is debt but Mr Romanov has said he might look to reduce the wage bill. Sergey Fedotovas has said similar things at meetings but it should still be good enough to build a side to compete at the right end of the table.

"Of course, it's that little bit easier here but Hearts have bigger expectations. That can offset things. When you are down there near the bottom of the league like Kilmarnock and not got a lot of money, people understand it sometimes. Staying in the league is the priority but that's not the case at Hearts. They've got to be up the top challenging. That's why, with all due respect, they are a bigger club with a bigger fanbase and have the facility to attract players to the club. Maybe that's an advantage they have over others.

"I aim to put those things to good use and get the club challenging again. We also have a very good youth system. Two or three players can come through down the line and that's what makes it worthwhile for supporters who put time and effort into backing the youth system. We'll continue to do that."

Years of experience in football management have taught Jefferies the merits of planning ahead. Three points on Saturday mean another step nearer the Europa League, though. That is the primary concern for now.