Neilson Lauds “Outstanding” Jambos Following Europa League Elimination

Robbie Neilson met the media following Hearts’ elimination from the Europa League play-off and subsequent sealing of Europa Conference League football for the months ahead. Cameron Wanstall reports.

Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

Despite suffering defeat to Swiss champions Zürich, Robbie Neilson couldn’t have been more content with Hearts’ short but sweet Europa League qualification run.

Jorge Grant’s dismissal before the hour mark turned the second leg against a dominant Hearts team, but the performances from the players were enough to delight Neilson and leave him optimistic about what lies ahead for the Jambos.

“I’m very proud of the players,” said the Hearts manager.

“I thought they were outstanding tonight. I’m proud of the club as we’ve had a long journey from administration through to promotion. The whole objective for the club is to give back to the fans because they give to us through the foundation, so there’s a lot of pride.

“For the first 60 minutes I thought we were outstanding, I thought we were the better team, we were taking the Swiss champions and putting them under massive pressure but then obviously the sending-off changes the game.

“There’s always that regret because if you get a goal it changes the game. But the most pleasing thing for us is we’ve played against the Swiss champions, full of international players, and we’ve dominated the game.

“The pressure, the intensity, the way we moved the ball out, getting into areas we wanted to get into and creating opportunities – that’s where that final moment wasn’t there. When you play at this level, that’s the difference.”

Defeat in the Europa League play-off means Hearts become the first Scottish club to compete in the Europa Conference League proper. Neilson is positive his team can stand up to the task once the group stage starts.

“I think we’ve proven that we can go away from home and play well, we can come to Tynecastle and put teams under massive pressure. In my opinion, we should’ve won the game today but it wasn’t happening.

“The most pleasing thing – going back to the fans – who every month put their hands in their pockets at a time when there’s a financial crisis. With the cost of living massive, they’re still putting that money in. And we’re giving them something to look forward to tomorrow. As soon as the draw is done, I’m sure the internet will be flooded with them all looking for flights, hotels, bars to have a drink at and stadiums to go to. That’s what football is about.”

The major talking point of the game was Hearts midfielder Jorge Grant’s red card that flipped the game on its head. Neilson is unsure of the decision awarded by Belgian referee Lawrence Visser, but wasn’t keen on wasting too much time on the matter.

“I speak to our players and say when you’re in the penalty area you can’t come off your feet, if you are you’ve got to make contact with the ball. He (Karol Mets) comes off his feet, so as soon as there’s contact it should be a penalty. But, the referee has seen it a different way and it’s cost us the tie.”

Stephen Kingsley put in a strong 78-minute performance on the left-side of a 2-man centre-back partnership despite carrying a muscle injury. His departure was promptly followed by the visitors grabbing their winning goal. Neilson gave an update on the defender’s fitness.

“Just a tight hamstring. To be honest, the last couple of days he’s had a niggle in it. It was touch and go, but he’s such an important player for us. We saw it today, with the way he controls the game and he’s so composed, we just felt we needed to put him in.

“He managed 75 minutes before we got him off because we didn’t want to make the injury any worse. So, the hope is he’ll be ready for Sunday.”

The travelling Zürich supporters were booming throughout the tie, but one moment – when Hearts goalkeeper Craig Gordon was struck by a missile – let down the lively away fans. Neilson, accepting it is outwith his control to deal with such matters, was keen to ensure Gordon wasn’t harmed.

“Obviously it’s disappointing. It’s not really my place to say but you don’t want to see it in football. We’ve had it already this season and it’s something that has to be eradicated.

“If it was a coin, he’d have probably caught it the big man.”

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