BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
From battling Bale to jousting with Gerrard, Danny Grainger insists nothing compares to the electric atmosphere of a European adventure with Hearts.
And the former Tynecastle favourite is adamant the Jambos are back where they belong.
Robbie Neilson’s men secured Europa League qualification last week with a gritty 0-0 draw against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
The Gorgie men will embark on a continental campaign for the first time since 2012, when a heartbreaking 88th minute strike by Luis Suarez condemned them to a 2-1 aggregate defeat against Liverpool.
And Grainger has urged the Hearts players and supporters alike to lap up every moment of an experience which he reckons even tops Edinburgh derby showdowns against Hibernian.
“At the start of the season, coming up from the Championship, I’m sure they would have snapped your hand off for a top six finish,” said the 29-year-old.“But what Robbie [Neilson] and the staff at the club have achieved is just fantastic. It’s tremendous they are back in Europe – in my eyes, exactly where they belong.
“When you sign for Hearts you are aiming to play in front of big crowds and contest massive games, but the atmosphere of those European games at Tynecastle were something else.
“It was absolutely crazy. Of course, the atmosphere on derby-day against Hibs is special, but the European nights were something different and my breath was taken away by it.”
Grainger, now captain of Carlisle, can still remember the clash with Brendan Rodgers’ Reds as if it were yesterday.
The din was deafening at Tynecastle as Liverpool narrowly won the first leg 1-0 through an Andrew Webster own goal.
The English Premier League giants drafted in the big guns to get the job done in the return fixture, with Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Suarez named in the starting lineup.
However, there was Anfield anarchy in the away end when David Templeton levelled the tie, sparking celebrations which have gone down in Hearts legend.
“On another day we could have taken Liverpool to extra-time – and you never know from there,” recalled Grainger, who was left forlorn when Luis Suarez hit back almost immediately to settle the tie.
“The nights you get to play against clubs like that are unforgettable. I was lucky enough to go back to Anfield this season with Carlisle in the Capital One Cup, but it was very different to going down there with Hearts.
“You were playing on a European stage, you travel down the night before and get to train on their pitch. It gave you a real sense of how big the club is.
“It was mental when we scored! It was exactly what you’d expect from the Hearts fans if you nick an equaliser at Anfield with five minutes to go. The fans that travelled with us that night were unbelievable and the scenes in the away end were unreal.”
Euro nights with Hearts also allowed Grainger to cross swords with Tottenham Hotspur, with Spurs battering the Jambos 5-0 at Tynecastle, only for the capital club to regain some pride with a 0-0 draw in London in the second leg.
“We had Webby [Andy Webster] and Zal [Marius Zaliukas], who had played in bigger matches, but it was a young team. It was a massive learning curve,” added Grainger.“Playing against Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon and Jermaine Defoe – you realise just how good these players are.
“The respect you have for what they can do with a football went through the roof. I remember Niko Kranjcar and Rafa van der Vaart absolutely running the show . . . it was just a different level.
“No-one expected us to get through in those ties and maybe there was a bit of naivety, but you need to soak up the experience and I’m sure the Hearts boys will next season.”
Hearts’ return to Europe is all the more remarkable given the club exited administration less than two years ago.
And, with the fans’ group Foundation of Hearts estimated to have ploughed £4 million into the club to date, he has heaped praise on the supporters’ role in the renaissance.
“I’d fancy them to sell that stadium out twice over every week, so it’s no surprise to see how they have rallied,” lauded Grainger. “It is a close-knit fanbase and they have supported the club during tough times – it is paying dividends now.
“The way everyone has got behind the club is fantastic and I hope they enjoy every moment in Europe next season. They have earned it.”