Hearts can finally savour finishing third but United boss says depth of squad will be crucial to challenge

RECENT events have somewhat overshadowed Hearts' achievement in securing third place in the SPL. The Marius Zaliukas affair preceded Wednesday night's sickening attack on Neil Lennon at Tynecastle, causing many to temporarily overlook what is a monumental conquest for any non-Old Firm club.

When the dust eventually settles there should still remain a strong sense of satisfaction among the Hearts players. It is pertinent, in fact, that they complete a successful league campaign at Dundee United on Sunday, the club who pursued them with most vigour in the race for European football.

The visitors arrive at Tannadice harbouring thoughts of summer qualifying rounds in the Europa League, while manager Jim Jefferies must now execute the plans he has been busily formulating in his Riccarton office in recent weeks. A modest recruitment drive is on the agenda to ensure Hearts have the wherewithal to compete both domestically and abroad. For evidence of ensuing problems brought by entering Europe with a squad short on depth, he need only glance across the technical area on Sunday to his United counterpart, and good friend, Peter Houston.

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It was Houston who guided United to third place and a Scottish Cup triumph last season. That ensured a play-off tie against AEK Athens for the right to enter the Europa League group phase, which the Tayside club lost 2-1 on aggregate. With hindsight, Houston is glad the European campaign was not extended and advised that Hearts must be well prepared in terms of numbers before venturing off on their travels. "Put it this way: prior to our European campaign I thought it would be a great experience. Then I recognised Craig Conway and Danny Swanson were out, Scott Severin was out and Darren Dods was out. I had nowhere near a squad capable of competing anywhere in Europe," he said. "We drew 1-1 with AEK Athens over there but we had a great chance in the last minute to take us through into the Europa League. The ball just missed the post by inches. That would actually have been worse for us had it gone in because we'd have gone into the Europa League with a very small squad of players and we'd have been struggling big-time. The league form would have been affected. What Jim and Billy Brown will need to be aware of is that if you have a small squad and you pick up any injuries, Europe can be a burden. I felt that, if we'd qualified for the Europa League, we might have been a bottom-six team this season. We wouldn't have been able to field the same players Saturday-midweek-Saturday. It would have been too much. What I would say to Jim and Billy is make sure you have a big enough squad to cope with that. Hearts are a big club who are more than capable of qualifying for the group stages."They did it when Craig Levein and I were there."

That was in 2004, prior to Vladimir Romanov and the arrival of the Ukio Bankas Investment Group. Costs are now being slashed at Tynecastle in line with every other football club in the country. That brings the inevitable difficulty of balancing the right squad numbers against a feasible financial plan.

"It's brilliant to get into Europe and it's a great achievement by the players who get you there," continued Houston. "The biggest thing is making sure you have a number of players to see you through it. It's a lot more difficult for Scottish clubs because budgets are getting smaller. Every chairman in Scotland, apart from the Old Firm, is reducing squad sizes. Rangers have played with a small squad and got into Europe and done fantastically well. Having too big a squad can create a problem as well regarding picking your best team, but you'd rather be in that position than going into a European campaign with not enough players."

Both Hearts and United have players nearing the end of their contracts who will be playing for the last time in the respective maroon and tangerine shirts on Sunday. Emotional farewells may indeed become the theme of a game in which there is little at stake.

"We have a few players who are going to be leaving the club and Sunday is an opportunity for one or two of them to say their cheerios," said Houston. "It would have been nice if we had got the chance to clinch third place in the last game of the season, but congratulations first and foremost go to Hearts. They have had an excellent season and ended up with the most points behind the Old Firm. That deserves third place.

"I see the game on Sunday as being one with the pressure off. Jim might feel the same. If it had been a winner-takes-all thing there would have been a lot of tension involved. We have had a fantastic season to finish fourth with all the problems we've had.

"Dundee United have a very small budget. We lost Andy Webster from last year and were short on centre-backs. The one we brought in, Scott Severin, got an injury early on. Danny Swanson and Craig Conway, who were massive players for us last season, never appeared until Christmas time. Then we had Darren Dods missing most of the season and Michael Kovacevic only playing one game.

"Then, over the Christmas period when Hearts were racking up all their points, we had game after game called off. In the second part of the season we had six games in 18 or 19 days. We won them all so I have to give my players great credit. The ideal scenario for now would be Rangers to win the league and Celtic to win the Scottish Cup, then we get into Europe in fourth place.

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"I think Sunday will be an open game. I'm going to play a couple of young ones and others who are leaving. The result doesn't really matter that much, although I'd like to win and reach the 61-point mark because we finished with 63 last year in third place."

Pipped by Hearts this season, Houston gives the impression he enjoys the rare chance for a more relaxed approach to the weekend's football.

That sentiment will be echoed down in Gorgie as the realisation of achieving third place is finally allowed to dawn.