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|<-Page||<-Team||Thu 16 Dec 2004 Hearts 0 Ferencvaros 1||Team->||Page->|
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|John Robertson||<-auth||Neil White||auth->||Levan Paniashvili|
|[D Rosa 30]|
Pressley’s big hit
Chest-thumping captain Steven Pressley will try to use previous European losses as a spur to catapult Hearts into the last 32 of the Uefa Cup, writes Neil White
The image has become iconic. Steven Pressley, marching through a continental evening, the jersey of his vanquished opponents in his clenched fist. He embraces his manager before saluting the delirious band of Hearts fans who have made the journey. It could be Bordeaux, Braga or Basel. The brisk bearhug could engulf Craig Levein or John Robertson. A moment captured, but the achievement is fragile. What matters is what happens next against Ferencvàros.
“I don’t want any hard-luck stories. We’re here to qualify. This group of players is not satisfied with simply being involved. Regardless of how fantastic a performance and result we got in Bordeaux, we failed to progress and we don’t want a similar scenario.” Pressley is as wilful off the park as he is on it, but that may not be enough to see Hearts through the group stages to the last 32 of the Uefa Cup.
Pressley’s personal performance in France last November was monumental. He was the rock on which wave after wave of Bordeaux attacks broke, as Mark de Vries’s second-half header secured victory. As proud as these players remain of that achievement, however, they have not forgotten what followed. The 2-0 defeat at Tynecastle was wheeled out by any one of them who spoke publicly between the 3-1 win over Braga at Murrayfield this season and the return leg in Portugal. They had learned their lesson. They would see the job through. They did, with a 2-2 draw which earned their place in Group A, and now they need another big night to make it past Christmas in Europe for the first time since 1989.
“When we got the result in Bordeaux I thought that, in European terms, it may not be topped,” said Pressley. “I think the result and performance in Basel (a 2-1 victory) went a level above that. For everybody that has been involved there have been some great nights, nights that you’ll never forget.”
The simplicities of those two-legged ties have disappeared at the business end of the group stages. If Basel fail to defeat Feyenoord in Switzerland, a Hearts victory over the Hungarians at Murrayfield sees them through. Basel win and it’s all for nothing. Past that, it gets a little messy, with the nightmare scenario seeing Basel lead the Dutch 1-0 with the clock ticking down. That result would see both teams go through, Feyenoord at the top of the group and Basel in third place, ensuring that neither face a Champions League loser in the next round. There would be very little else for either side to play for, but let the conspiracy theories wait for now.
A different Steven Pressley has been somewhere like here before. The group phase was just as new-fangled and confusing in 1992-93, the first year of the Champions League. Pressley had just edged his way into the Rangers squad that came within an ace of the final, then contested by the sides that topped each of two leagues made up entirely of domestic champions, hence Champions League. The name has stuck but it is less accurate nowadays.
The teenage Pressley played from the bench in two games that season, but was in the stands at Ibrox as Rangers drew 0-0 with CSKA Moscow to end their 10-game campaign unbeaten but lose out to Marseille, the eventual champions, who were beating Bruges to render the Rangers result void. “I was only a bit-part player in those games,” he recalls, struggling to remember how it felt in the stadium that night as news from Belgium filtered through. “I can’t tell you. I was only 19. At that age I didn’t think I would have to wait this long (to play regularly in Europe) but I’m enjoying it now.
What has taken Pressley from there to here? How did that teenager become the chest-thumping captain of this European campaign? When Pressley left for Coventry in a £600,000 transfer the year after that incredible campaign it was a move typical of so many young players deemed dispensable by the Old Firm. Nine unhappy months later he was back in Scotland after Dundee United paid £750,000. Pressley was pivotal in their return to the top division in 1996 and the following season helped United to a third-place finish and a brief taste of European football.
The defender’s three-year contract expired in the summer of 1998, when Jim Jefferies took him to Tynecastle on a Bosman free transfer. Hearts were paying out the windfall from the Scottish Media Group’s investment on players of questionable quality. The maturing centre-half they got for free would prove the best buy of all. To begin with he was often played out of position, with Dave McPherson, David Weir and Paul Ritchie contesting central defence. The team that Pressley had joined disbanded and he grew into the space vacated by that trio, eventually taking the armband and a responsibility he relishes. He was the only member of this team that Levein did not sign, yet he was the one the manager trusted the most. Under John Robertson, that does not appear to have changed.
“Expectation levels have increased since I’ve come here. The first year was different, I came here on the back of the Scottish Cup win and a relatively good league campaign, so that season there was a lot of expectation on the players,” recalls Pressley. “Since then it has been a slow progress of building up a team and, year on year, we have progressed and the supporters’ expectations have progressed. That brings its own pressure and it’s a great credit to the players that we have competed and played well, not just in Europe but domestically as well.”
It is in the Uefa Cup, though, that Hearts can make their greatest impact this season. There is a significance to prolonging involvement in Europe into the New Year that is hard to define. “Over the last 10 years we have depended solely on the Old Firm and that is disappointing, but we have shown we are capable of playing against some of the top sides in Europe and achieving results. For the whole of Scottish football that should give everybody a lift and qualifying (for the last 32) would be fantastic.”
No team outwith the Old Firm have survived the winter in European competition in the past 15 years. That remains a marker for Robertson. While the players have a relative wealth of recent European experience upon which to draw, their manager remembers that this is not new ground for Hearts. He has tales of unexpected heroism to inspire.
“In 1989, Alex McDonald took this club to the quarter finals,” said Robertson. “We were the width of a post away, twice, from a semi-final against Napoli and Diego Maradona. If we go through to the last 32 it will be a great achievement but I think it will still be a bit short of that. In these matches, someone has the chance to step out of the shadows and be the guy that gets the winning goal. Do that and you’re a cult figure here, you’re remembered for life.”
He points to Robbie Neilson’s last-minute winner in Switzerland — “who’d have bet on that?” — and De Vries’s strike in France. Then there are names from that mighty run in 1989. Iain Ferguson’s shot into the corner of the Bayern Munich net at Tynecastle to give Hearts a 1-0 victory in the first leg of the quarter-final; Mike Galloway’s flying header from Walter Kidd’s cross that did for Austria Vienna in the second round; Jim Brown’s strike as they overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit, beating Lokomotiv Leipzig 5-1 in 1976. Who will be the next name on the list? “I wouldn’t bet against (Dennis) Wyness,” says Robertson. It’s a cute pick, a player viewed as a rare miss in Levein’s transfer dealings, but rekindled by Robertson.
Hearts, though, will need more than Wyness’s goals on Thursday. “We have an outside chance and that is all it is. Basel are still favourites to go through,” said Robertson, and there is the rub. The latest Hearts hero may come from Rotterdam.
After Ferguson, Galloway and Neilson, what price Castelen, Kalou or Kuyt becoming the toast of Murrayfield?
Taken from timesonline.co.uk
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