Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Europa League: Hearts Look To Earn Their Spurs

The return of European football. Scotland expects.

The worst, usually.

Dundee United have already shuffled off, cramming a qualifying defeat into the SPL's blink-and-you'll-miss-it summer holiday.

Three survive. Rangers reward for not winning their Champions League qualifier is a shot at the Europa League if they can negotiate past Slovenia's NK Maribor in the play off round.

Celtic take their first steps in this season's continental competition against Switzerland's FC Sion, opponents who may or may not be on the verge of fielding illegally signed players.

Big games both. Big questions to answer. Ally McCoist has lost out on the Champions League cash 'n' carry already. Can he - or Rangers - afford the ignominy of another exit before August is out?

Neil Lennon's Celtic pulled off that unfortunate double last season. The Europa League might not be his European tournament of choice but unfinished business remains.

It's Hearts though who have landed the plummiest of plum draws as one of London's biggest clubs come calling.

Heart of Midlothian v Tottenham Hotspur.

As someone said to me over the weekend: "That's the sort of draw you want, none o' this fittering around wi' Eastern European clubs you cannae pronounce."

Can neither pronounce nor beat most of the time. But it's fair to say that non-Old Firm Scottish clubs rarely get a chance, now that we're very much the paupers of UEFA's stratified society, to get these sort of fixtures, games that hark back to the golden age when Europe was smaller and we took our place at the top table.

Another Battle of Britain. A clash that resonates with a certain history. In 1902 these clubs battled for the (albeit contrived) title of world champions - Hearts took the honours.

Memories of Dave Mackay have resounded through the decades at both clubs, a name never far from any list of all time greats at Hearts or at White Hart Lane.

Spurs' coach Joe Jordan spent a couple of years as manager at Tynecastle in the early 1990s.

His time as boss coincided with the first Gulf War. A joke from that period:

"What have Saddam Hussein and Wallace Mercer got in common? They've both got Jordan by the balls."

Funny? Not now. Probably not then. But illustrative of how Jordan's memories of Hearts might not be the fondest of a storied career.

If he is at all motivated by revenge the odds looked stacked in his favour. Fifth place in the English Premier League, on the back of a top four finish the previous season, requires a weight of resources and talent that Hearts, Scotland's "third force," can't begin to match.

As the Bard wrote: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!"

The power is the internet. The "ithers" are Spurs fans less captivated by this fixture than their Caledonian cousins:

"Heart of Midlothian are more or less everything that is disappointing about the Scottish Premier League. They started off the season with a couple of good results, then canned their manager for no good reason. They have a few high quality players, but the squad is a whole is not good enough to be terribly competitive. The sponsor on their jersey looks like crap. None of their good players are actually Scottish. Hearts are a microcosm of everything that blows about the SPL. They are a random clusterf--k of 'meh.'" (Cartilage Free Captain)

Which would suggest that hopes of maroon glory are little more than a foolish notion.

Perhaps.

It's hard to see how Hearts can possibly win in Edinburgh let alone in the return leg. Spurs are simply a better team. There's a gulf that will show over the course of 90 minutes, let alone over the course of two matches.

But Tynecastle can be inhospitable and rumbustious. Hearts have players who will give themselves fully to the cause. And there will be some in attendance who have, at the back of their minds, a slight conviction that - even when hampered by a crap corporate shirt sponsor - David can sometimes slay Goliath.

Harry's army have already been rebuffed once, sent on to St Andrews tae think again with Edinburgh's hotels fit to burst at the height of the festival.

Will they be repelled again? The fact that some of the tartan media is presenting 'Arry's 'otel 'orror as being an important psychological blow suggests straws are being clutched.

On the other hand Spurs seem to be worried about injuries, have not yet played a competitive game after their league opener lost out to rioting youths and have a manager prepared to give as much time to the Europa League as he would to a journalist asking questions about dodgy deals.

Impossible is nothing? No, it's definitely something. But it would be nice to think this could be one of the great Tynecastle European nights, that Hearts can be competitive enough to stay in touch, to at least travel to London with something at stake.

If, at the end of the night, Joe Jordan's removing his specs anticipating a run in with Ian Black then the Jambos might even have got them rattled.

> That Spurs injury list in full:

  • Sandro
  • Wilson Palacios
  • Steven Pienaar
  • Luka Modric
  • Jermaine Jenas
  • Tom Huddlestone (maybe)
  • Ledley King
  • Alan Hutton
  • William Gallas

Which will leave the squad looking a little something like this:

Gomes, Friedel, Cudicini, Bale, Kaboul, Bassong, Dawson, Corluka, Walker, Assou-Ekotto, Huddlestone, Lennon, Van der Vaart, Kranjcar, Rose, Livermore, Pavlyuchenko, Defoe, Crouch

Pretty much devoid of the well known, the well paid or the odd bloke who finished a World Cup final captaining his country.

A squad, in fact, that would be happy to simply establish itself among the SPL's middle order.