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Field of dreams ready for Jambos' Euro bid


HEARTS will kick-off their European challenge against Braga at Murrayfield on Thursday on a pitch prepared as if it was the UEFA Cup final itself.

With Tynecastle no longer meeting the criteria for staging such matches, the home of Scottish rugby will host its first-ever competitive football match with the visit of the Portuguese aces.

The gradual transformation of the park has been underway since last Thursday, with preparations having been stepped up in recent days as the big kick-off approaches.

From sell-out rugby internationals to American Football and rock concerts, Murrayfield has seen it all since the Springboks officially opened the new-look stadium in 1997.

But the prospect of hosting a UEFA Cup tie for the first time has set the pulses racing. Mark Laidlaw is the man responsible for co-ordinating the smooth transition from a rugby field to football pitch, the stadium manager overseeing a team of around 35 individuals determined to produce an arena worthy of the occasion.

From turf and amenities manager John Litster to safety and security officer Ian McCulloch and maintenance manager Colin Anderson, no stone has been left unturned by the SRU in an attempt to provide Hearts with the best possible facilities for Craig Levein when he leads his men into battle in the UEFA Cup first round, first leg showdown in two days’ time.

From floodlighting to seat cleaning, attention to detail has been a priority for the SRU and while there has been much to consider - including the correct shading patterns of grass to meet UEFA specifications - Laidlaw insists the challenge has been relatively straightforward.

"We started the preparations last Thursday so we will have been working on it for a week by the time the game comes along," he said.

"We have had the football posts up before. Hearts played Dundee here in a closed-door game last year while there has also been a match between MSPs.

"It has been remarkably easy getting the pitch ready. The two codes are not that different and preparations for a football match are not a million miles away from the preparations for a rugby game.

"We are used to the dynamics involved of running the stadium and filling it with people.

"There has been a lot of talk about Hearts coming here for a long time. There was the possibility of them being here this season so it is not as if they arrived on our doorstep and told us they have a UEFA Cup tie in two months’ time.

"I think Murrayfield looks fantastic whether it has rugby posts, football posts or American Football posts up. We are proud of what we have here and the more people we can get using it the better."

With Sunday’s SPL clash with Rangers at Tynecastle having taken priority for the Gorgie outfit, Levein and his players were due to have their first training session on the pitch today as their own plans for Thursday gathered pace.

Laidlaw was confident the Jambos would like what they saw but would happily listen to any special requests from Levein.

"Ideally grass is a bit longer for rugby than football and that’s what we would have here if we had nothing else on the pitch," he said.

"We have got it to a level we are comfortable with, although maybe it is not as short as say Parkhead or Ibrox, for example.

"I don’t imagine the players will have any problems with the surface whatsoever and they will be able to wear their normal footwear.

"If Craig wants anything changed then I’m sure we can find a compromise.

"Actually, we fully expect less damage to the park compared to rugby matches."

Laidlaw, who has worked his way up the Murrayfield ladder in the 13 years he has been involved at the stadium, added: "The guys here have done a lot of varied events but the first European football match has really caught their imagination and there is a real buzz about the stadium.

"They may be working at the home of Scottish rugby but most of them are football fans and living in Edinburgh, half of them support Hearts!

"The bottom line is we will do everything we can to bring Hearts success out on the pitch.

"It wouldn’t matter if it was Hearts versus Inverness Caley Thistle or a top European sporting event, our approach would be exactly the same.

"If the World Cup Final was being played here on Thursday, Murrayfield would be presented in exactly the same way.

"We don’t drop our standards for anything. And it’s not just the pitch, it’s the whole stadium."

While the SRU is hosting the cup-tie, responsibility will ultimately fall on Hearts’ shoulders to ensure the historic event runs smoothly and safely on the day, as Laidlaw explained.

"Hearts facilities manager John Boag has done a lot of preparation work and the fact we are just around the corner has helped greatly," he said.

"In fact, everyone at Hearts has been a pleasure to work with and they have been a credit to the club.

"It can’t have been easy with the cloud of uncertainty hanging over them at the moment but they have embraced the idea of coming to Murrayfield and have been working hard to get it right.

"John is ultimately the safety officer on the day. Hearts will occupy the stadium on Thursday and John will be the responsible person along with the police.

"We will supplement that and advise them, effectively we’ll fix anything that is broken.

"With the exception of the rugby division at Murrayfield, every other department of the company has had a hand in the organisation for Thursday.

"The commercial department worked hard on securing the contract and once that was sorted out, things were basically handed over to us to try to make it happen. Our objective is to help others reach their objectives."

Laidlaw is leading a winning team off the park - it’s now up to Levein to do likewise on the pitch.

Taken from the Scotsman

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