Steven Pressley in Hearts Europa League prediction as he recalls putting Bigmouth Braga boss in his place

12 Jun 2022 | 08:57 | Football

Steven Pressley remembers refusing to brag Braga’s boss Jesualdo Ferreira as Heart beat the Portuguese into the Europa League group stage in 2004.

Eighteen years on and the former Jambos captain thinks his old team should aim for a few of the more popular KOs as they prepare for their first taste of the teams since that explosive campaign.

Robbie Neilson was a key part of the Hearts team that beat the Premiera Liga side 5-3 on aggregate after being beaten by veteran Portuguese coach Ferreira following a 3-1 first leg win at Edinburgh.

Now he is leading the Jambos outfit, who has earned a crack at Europa League play-offs after a season that saw them finish third and reach the Scottish Cup Final.

If they fail in the playoffs, as they did in their last two meetings with Liverpool a decade ago and Tottenham in 2011, then Hearts will secure a place in the Conference League group stage.

And Pressley calculates that sustained wind, estimated at least £2.75m, is key to helping Neilson build a side capable of making a mark on the continent.

The summer boost has already begun with the arrivals of defenders Kye Knowles and Lewis Neilson and winger Alan Forrest.

And Pressley said: “The great thing about the Europa Conference League backup is the money guarantee.

“That allows Robbie and his recruiting team to invest now because they know they’ve got plenty of cash.

“Without that it’s hard to invest and sign good players without worrying about not making progress to get back what you’ve spent.

“Hiring is key. They lost John Souttar to Rangers and brought in a couple of well-performing defenders to fill them in.

“But they also lost Ellis Simms back to Everton so there are two big players on your team.

“Replacing those players between now and the upcoming playoffs will be key to a successful European campaign.

“Do it well and they will have every chance.

“We did it in 2004 at a time when Scottish football was not particularly strong in European competitions. Against a Braga team with a great reputation, we were underrated.

“But one of the motivations going into that second leg was that their head coach made some offensive remarks about our players and our style of play.

“Basically he said we were a bad team. It was a bit arrogant and we were furious. Craig Levein makes sure we use it as motivation.

“To go there and get a 2-2 draw to win is amazing and the perfect answer to his nonsense.

“It also means we are the first non-Old Firm team from Scotland to qualify for the group stages of that competition after it was reformatted.

“Mark De Vries was absolutely brilliant there. That night, he gave them a real problem with his physical presence and scored twice.”

Hearts will lose to Feyenoord and Schalke before a 2-1 win over Basel, in which Neilson scores the decisive last-minute winner, setting up a massive clash with Fenencvaros in Edinburgh for a chance to qualify.

Unfortunately, the Jambos lost 1-0 at Murrayfield – with Pressley persuaded to move to rugby’s home ground due to Tynecastle’s failure to meet UEFA regulations, their hopes were dashed. .

“A huge positive for Hearts this season is playing at Tynecastle,” he said. It’s tight, scary and creates a truly electric atmosphere.

“That’s a really big factor for this team. We lost that advantage in the group stage in 2004.

“We won 2-1 at Basel – Robbie scored in the last minute and it was his first goal for the club. He still likes to talk about it. He brought it out just last week while we were golfing.

“To be fair, it was a huge hit for him!

“That gave us a chance to qualify if we beat Ferencvaros in the last game but it didn’t.

“I really believe that if we play that game at Tynecastle, we will improve. We really need that atmosphere.”

Hearts may have lost Souttar from the backline but Pressley reckons they still have two top defenders in Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley.

He said: “I gave Stephen his debut at Falkirk when he was 16 years old.

“He had some tough moments like all young players. But one thing that is clear is his ability to overcome setbacks. That tells me a lot about a young player and their mentality and determination.

“His progress has been amazing. He’s a big Hearts player.

“I told Robbie he’s a player who can handle Hearts and Tynecastle and he proves it.”

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