BY IAIN COLLIN – @CCP_sport
ROBBIE Neilson is desperate to give the Hearts fans a prolonged run in Europe after they supported the team so loyally on their journey back from the brink.
The Tynecastle head coach insists his side will be ready for Thursday night’s Europa League first-round qualifier against Estonians FC Infonet after stepping up their preparations in recent days following a short summer break.
Qualification for continental competition in May came just two years after the club was plunged into administration and staring at an uncertain future after being relegated to the Championship.
However, a convincing title triumph ahead of Rangers and city rivals Hibernian was followed by an impressive first campaign back in the top-flight that climaxed in a third-placed finish.
Neilson is now keen to kick off the competitive action with a victory to take back over to Tallinn next week, and to dedicate to the club’s dedicated fans.
“There has been a huge turnaround here in the last two years,” he said. “We have managed to get out of the Championship and reach the Premiership and then qualify for Europe and now we are playing European football.
“For all the players, it has been a great learning curve.
“It is great for the fans as well. As a player, going abroad for European games was phenomenal, but you used to meet fans out there and speak to them and it is one of the highlights of the season for the supporters.
“They backed us when we went to Alloa, Queen of the South and Livingston. Now they are getting the chance to go abroad and back us as well, and getting a holiday and hopefully seeing a good game.”
Neilson confesses a truncated holiday for his squad was not ideal this summer, nor the rapid fortnight’s warm-up they have enjoyed ahead of the visit of their little-known opponents.
However, he is optimistic the tie, and the hoped-for future rounds, can set Hearts up for the domestic season in the way Aberdeen embarked on a run of eight consecutive victories in last term’s Premiership after playing in Europe.
“It was a short close-season for the players, they were off for four weeks,” added Neilson, who is set to plunge Perry Kitchen straight back into his squad after the midfielder’s return on Wednesday from international duty with the United States in the Copa America. “They came back in just over two weeks before the first game.
“But they kept themselves in good condition, which meant the ball was out on the first day and we had something to focus on.
“Sometimes pre-season can drag on and on waiting for that first competitive game. Ours has come early and if we can progress in Europe it sets us up well for the start of the season.
“You saw that with Aberdeen last year. They had a great start because they had competitive games early. Hopefully we can mirror that.”