Steven Pressley in Hearts Europa League prediction as he remembers putting bigmouth Braga boss in his place -

Steven Pressley in Hearts Europa League prediction as he remembers putting bigmouth Braga boss in his place

Steven Pressley remembers shutting down bragging Braga boss Jesualdo Ferreira as Hearts stormed past the Portuguese into the Europa League group stage in 2004.

Eighteen years on and the former Jambos skipper reckons his old side should be targeting a few more high profile KOs as they prepare for their first taste of the groups since that explosive campaign.

Robbie Neilson was a key part of the Hearts side that smashed the Premiera Liga side 5-3 on aggregate having been rubbished by veteran Portuguese boss Ferreira after the first leg 3-1 win in Edinburgh.

Now he’s at the helm of a Jambos outfit who have earned a crack at the Europa League play-off after a season that saw them finish third and reach the Scottish Cup Final.

Should they fail in the play-off round, as they did on their last two attempts against Liverpool a decade ago and Tottenham in 2011, then Hearts have the lucrative safety net of a place in the Conference League group stage.

And Pressley reckons that guaranteed windfall, estimated at a minimum £2.75m, is crucial to helping Neilson build a side capable to making their mark on the continent.

The summer strengthening has already started with the arrival of defender Kye Knowles and Lewis Neilson and winger Alan Forrest.

And Pressley said: “The great thing about the fallback of the Europa Conference League is that guarantee of money.

“That enables Robbie and his recruitment team to make investments now because they know they’ve got that pot of cash.

“Without that then it’s hard to invest and sign good players without concerns of not progressing to recoup what you’ve spent.

“The recruitment is pivotal. They’ve lost John Souttar to Rangers and brought in a couple of defenders who have big shows to fill.

“But they’ve also lost Ellis Simms back to Everton so there’s two massive players in your team.

“Replacing those players between now and the play-off ties coming round will be key to a successful European campaign.

“Do it well and they will have every chance.

“We did it in 2004 at a time Scottish football hadn’t been particularly strong in European competitions. Up against a Braga side with a great reputation we were underdogs.

“But one of the motivations going into the second leg over there was that their head coach had made some derogatory comments regarding our players and our style of play.

“He basically said we were a bad team. It was a bit arrogant and we were furious. Craig Levein made sure we used it as motivation.

“To go there and get a 2-2 draw to win the tie was brilliant and was the perfect answer to his nonsense.

“It also meant we were the first non-Old Firm team from Scotland to qualify for the group stages of that competition after it’s reformat.

“Mark De Vries was absolutely outstanding over there. That night he gave them real problems with his physical presence and scored twice.”

Hearts would lose to Feyenoord and Schalke before a rousing 2-1 win away to Basel in which Neilson scored a last minute winner set up a massive clash with Fenencvaros in Edinburgh for the chance to qualify.

Unfortunately the Jambos lost 1-0 at Murrayfield – with Pressley convinced the move to the home of rugby due to Tynecastle’s pitch not meeting UEFA regulations kicked their hopes into touch.

He said: “A huge positive for Hearts this season is playing at Tynecastle. It’s tight, it’s intimidating and generates a really electric atmosphere.

“That’s a really big factor for this team. We lost that advantage in the group stages in 2004.

“We got a massive 2-1 win at Basel – Robbie scored in the last minute and it was his first goal for the club . He still likes to talk about it. He brought it up just last week when we were playing golf.

“It was a huge highlight for him to be fair!

“That gave us an opportunity to qualify if we beat Ferencvaros in the last game but it wasn’t to be.

“I honestly believe if we had played that game at Tynecastle we would have progressed. We really needed that atmosphere.”

Hearts may have lost Souttar from their backline but Pressley reckons they still have two top defenders in Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley.

He said: “I gave Stephen his debut at Falkirk when he was a raw 16-year-old.

“He had some difficult moments as all youngsters do. But the one thing that was apparent was his ability to overcome setbacks. That tells me a lot about a young player and their mentality and determination.

“His progression has been fantastic. He is a massive player for Hearts.

“I told Robbie he was a player who could handle Hearts and Tynecastle and he’s proved it.”

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