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Mackay: Home comforts vital in Hearts' bid for Euro glory


FORMER Hearts star Gary Mackay is urging the club's players to make the most of home advantage against AEK Athens tonight and take a massive step towards eclipsing the club's past European achievements.

The Jambos' record appearance holder was a part of the Tynecastle side that reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup in 1989 before crashing out to German giants Bayern Munich.

That incredible run saw the Tynecastle team eliminate St Patrick's Athletic, Austria Vienna and Velez Mostar on their way to the last eight of the competition - they beat Bayern 1-0 at Tynecastle before losing 2-1 on aggregate - in what is widely regarded as the club's finest European moment.

Mackay, however, is in no doubt that qualifying for the lucrative group stages of the Champions League would better that feat.

Standing in Hearts' way are AEK, and Mackay, who will be at Murrayfield to watch the game this evening, would love nothing more that to see the side surpass what he and his team-mates achieved.

"The big thing for us was that it had taken six or seven years to get to that stage [UEFA Cup quarter-finals] under Alex McDonald and Sandy Jardine and that was the reward really, getting to go and play at the Olympic Stadium in Munich," he said.

"For me, playing in those games was huge and to be part of it was amazing. It was a whole new ball game for us and getting to pit our wits against the best players was tremendous.

"The current squad has also undergone quite a transformation under Mr Romanov and the club's fortunes have really changed too and this is their reward, the chance to get into the biggest club competition in the world. I think the players deserve all the plaudits they've got for challenging the Old Firm last season and this would be a great reward for them and for the fans.

"What we did was a big deal but getting to the Champions League proper would better that by at least 50 per cent and I would love to see them manage it.

"You can't overstate just how big it would be for Hearts to get to the group stages and sometimes I have to pinch myself when I consider they are only 180 minutes away from doing that.

"I never thought I'd see Hearts have this opportunity and I just hope they can take it for themselves and for all the supporters who have been magnificent.

"I think the key will be how they get on at home and if they can get the right result at Murrayfield then they have a great chance over in Greece because they have shown that they can be pretty solid at the back."

There is little doubt that the draw for the third qualifying round could have handed Hearts a far tougher task than they eventually got with the Jambos avoiding the likes of European heavyweights AC Milan, Arsenal, Liverpool and Ajax.

But while being paired with Athens has given Valdas Ivanauskas' men a reasonable opportunity of booking their place among Europe's big guns, Mackay was quick to issue a note of caution to sections of the Hearts support who seem to be taking victory over the two legs for granted.

"Athens are nobody's mugs and you only have to look at their pre-season results where they have beaten teams like Benfica to see that," said the former Scotland internationalist. "It will take a momentous effort for Hearts to go through over the two legs and I'm positive that it will take 180 minutes, nothing will be decided after just one game.

"I think it's important that the Hearts supporters are patient and realistic. If it's nothing each at half-time tonight they have to realise that the club are at a stage they have never been at before.

"In the last game against Siroki the players were booed off at half-time and they will need positive backing this time round because they will be up against it on the pitch as it is.

"AEK are far, far better than the opponents in the previous round and it will take a huge effort to get beyond them over the two games and it's important that everyone at Murrayfield cheers them on because of what is at stake.

"There have been many huge efforts from the players over the past 15 months or so and if they can put in that sort of effort again who's to say they can't succeed?"

Taken from the Scotsman

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