That didn’t quite transpire but the splitting of the Old Firm and a Scottish Cup win, after a rollercoaster season, was a huge success with a team which is still revered in Gorgie. It meant that despite all the nonsense which had emerged throughout that famous campaign, supporters could get to the summer of 2006 with the Champions League theme song as their ringtone and the belief, well hope, that there would be substantial investment in the playing squad – possibly ‘two World Cup stars’ – to help them reach the group stages and go even closer to winning the league.
The end product – defeat AEK Athens in the final qualifying round and a lack of real star-studded recruits arriving – didn’t match those early summer hopes.
Those 12 to 18 months, between George Burley being hired and embarking on an eight-game winless league run between October and December 2006, can be regarded both as a high point of that era but also a missed opportunity.
Now, looking ahead to the summer of 2022, Hearts and the fans have been presented with another captivating opportunity. One which could be transformative for the club and hugely exciting for the supporters. A position which the club have not been in since those heady days of 2005 and 2006. And even then, there was no guarantee of at least EIGHT European fixtures until December.
Even before the win over Hibs at Hampden to make sure of that feat, supporters were keeping an eye on their annual leave, ensuring they had just enough or plenty to see them through to the end of the year and a couple of European trips.
Now, fans are booking time off work, they are picking away games wisely to save some extra coin for when the time comes in August for the all-important Europa League play-off.
There are few worries about having to play the minnows of FC Infonet and Birkirkara like the last European trip in 2016. While it is far too early to suggest which opponents Hearts could face for a place in the Europa League group stages, it is surreal seeing the club alongside Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven as the only teams currently in the play-off round draw.
And that adds to the excitement. Between now and the draw on August 1, more and more teams will be confirmed as possible opponents, one of which will have to ready itself for a maroon invasion.
Position of strength
By the time of that game, the league season will be well underway and no League Cup group stage will have to be endured. These are different times for Scottish clubs in Europe now and Hearts have timed their return perfectly.
Group stage qualification for the Europa League is €3.63million alone. For the Conference League it’s €2.94million. On top of that there is gate receipts, broadcast, prize money for winning or drawing a game.
Hearts are already in a position of strength to get stronger with the running of the club, Foundation of Hearts and most of the team’s star men tied down. At a time when both Aberdeen and Hibs will be in transition once more. Now they will benefit from significant European revenue. There has not been a better opportunity to make the gap bigger and look upwards, using it as a springboard to get closer to the Old Firm.
To do that, it will require more savvy recruitment.
When it comes to the summer or January window, nothing quite catches the attention of supporters more than rumours, speculation and the scarf above the head confirmation.
Supporters can look forward to the next few months and the possibilities in terms of players arriving. Aside from the eye-watering contracts handed out around the turn of the century and the Romanov-era, Hearts have never been a more enticing prospect for possible signings.
A well-run club, who have proven themselves capable of challenging for trophies and now have the “carrot” of European football, as Robbie Neilson called it.
I have spoken of his desire to extend the stay of Ellis Simms who has impressed on loan from Everton. The loan market in England becomes a different proposition in terms of players Premier League clubs are willing to send to Tynecastle Park on loan, knowing they can potentially get significant European exposure.
Neilson has tried to temper that excitement. There will be no treating the transfer market like a student waving their card about in the pub after their first SAAS payment has landed in their account.
“We can’t chuck it all in one transfer window, we have to grow the club gradually,” he said. “It’s important we take steps to try and progress the club.”
And that is where Hearts are right now. In the ideal position to progress the club onto a new level. That medium-to-long term thinking is understood and even exciting for fans, looking at where the club could be in a few years.
Yet, it won’t come near that rush supporters will be getting over the coming months. Of transfers, of European trips, of getting ahead of themselves.
As one supporter put it to me, imagine Hearts won the Europa League play-off then sneaked third place. It would mean European football in the New Year in the Conference League.
While Neilson and the club will be taking small steps, fans will be taking big leaps. And they have every right to do so.
Hearts earned right to savor this – Robbie Neilson renaissance, how team has be…