Andy Kirk sees Hearts’ John Souttar replacement not being a transfer as he relives Euro glory nights

It’s 22 years since Hearts beat Bundesliga giants Stuttgart at Tynecastle but Andy Kirk can still feel the energy as if it was yesterday.

The former Northern Ireland striker recalls the pulsating atmosphere reverberating round Gorgie that evening and insists little else he experienced for club or country could match even though it ultimately ended in an agonizing away-goals loss.

Kirk, now Brechin manager, can’t wait to see those special Euro nights return to his old stomping ground after the summer. Robbie Neilson – a second-half sub that night against Stuttgart – has worked wonders to guide the Jambos into a Europa League play-off spot after a third-place finish in the Premiership.

Even if they lose, the consolation of a Conference League group stage place guarantees big nights in the capital – and a mini windfall in the coffers.

Only once in the last decade have the Jambos ventured into continental football and not since 2004-05 have they set foot in the group stage of a Euro competition. And Kirk said: “It’s a hell of an achievement to reach the group stage and guarantee European football until Christmas.

“I played against Stuttgart in 2000 at Tynecastle and it was one of the best nights in my career. I’ll never forget the atmosphere in that game, the noise and energy under the lights, it was phenomenal.

“We won 3-2 on the night and were so unlucky not to go through as we lost on away goals. Gordon Petric had a great chance near the end but he couldn’t put it in the net and that was us out.

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“But what a night it was, one I will always remember. When Tynecastle is rocking it’s an unbelievable stadium to play in.”

Kirk returned to Hearts as youth coach under Neilson in 2016 and saw that the rookie boss had something special.

He reckons there’s a legacy being built under his old team-mate. Kirk said: “Even then you could see how hard he worked and how dedicated he was to the club.

Andy Kirk opens the scoring for Hearts in 5-1 win at Tynecastle

“He’s had a fantastic season getting to third, Europe and the Cup Final. They have signed some really good players.

“I’m sure he will be backed again in the summer to strengthen the squad and try to push on even more next season.

“Knowing Robbie he won’t be happy just to settle. He will want to push on and build an even stronger side.

“He’s got a strong base to build from and these boys will be desperate to keep improving. Craig Halkett has got better and better since he came in from Livingston and everyone knows how good Craig Gordon is.

“They have guys like Liam Boyce, Barrie McKay, Cammy Devlin and then they have a good academy with youngsters coming through. There’s exciting times ahead at Tynecastle.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the recruitment team at Tynecastle this summer is how to replace Rangers-bound John Souttar. It’s such a big problem Kirk reckons it might require a change of system rather than trying to find a like-for-like replacement.

He said: “Can you replace John Souttar instantly? No lo creo. He’s a top-quality player but they will have to find a solution to plug that gap.

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“It might be a change of the system or they might have someone else lined up. Technically John is very good, his range of passing is excellent.

“In a top team you could see him spreading the ball around, looking world class. He has all the attributes to have a hell of a career.”

Kirk was speaking to promote the PFA Scotland exit trials at Broadwood that culminated in a showcase match on Saturday.

He said: “Football’s a tough industry. Everyone dreams of a full-time career but it isn’t possible for everyone and we have to show them the options.

“The amount of players who fall out of the game altogether is crazy. There’s a lot of talent here and given the right club at the right time they could do well.

“The more exposure they have then hopefully an opportunity will come their way.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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