I’ve only been to one European match before. My dad and I went on a whim one night to see Dundee United v Trabzonspor in the second leg of a UEFA Cup qualifying round game in 1997. So, 19 years after my first, I was rather looking forward to my second ever European match.
Tonight was also my first visit to Tynecastle, despite the fact I’ve lived in Edinburgh for 12 of the last 14 years, and at the right end of town for the last two. And what a great wee stadium it is too. The atmosphere it can generate, even for a Europa League qualifier against a Maltese side, is rather impressive. My long suffering wife Clare and I were in the Wheatfield Stand, opposite the lovely Archibald Leitch-designed Main Stand, which is to shortly be demolished and replaced with a more modern structure.
To the game, and Hearts had taken a 0-0 draw from their away leg back to Tynie. Manager (and ex-East Fife player) Robbie Neilson had sent out a reasonably attacking side and it was Hearts who made much of the early running. Birkirkara’s plan was clearly to sit reasonably deep but to press the ball at every opportunity and hope to catch their Edinburgh opponents out.
Hearts’ first opportunity came about halfway through the first half, a lovely cross from the right producing an overhead-ish kick from Jamie Walker who was rather unlucky to see his shot come back off the crossbar. Sam Nicholson, meanwhile, was having some joy cutting in from the left hand side and he won Hearts a penalty with ten minutes to go to half-time. Prince Buaben’s effort was weak with the away keeper, who was pretty dodgy otherwise, easily getting down to his left. It was telling listening to the Jambos on the way home stewing over their recent lack of success from the spot which appeared to be a hangover from the previous season.
Half time arrived with no score for either side, and the home crowd somewhat frustrated, particularly with the missed penalty. Hearts hadn’t created too many openings and they were a little sluggish in moving the ball forward. Their opponents were playing a fairly canny game and I must admit I thought Birkirkara’s pressing game would peter out in the second half. It didn’t.
A mere 10 minutes into the second half, Hearts were a goal down and staring at a European exit before the end of July. A set piece from near the halfway line was punted into the home penalty box. Three or four failed attempts by Hearts to clear their lines came and went before the ball fell to Christian Bubalovic, who finished well past Jack Hamilton.
Urgency but also anxiety then came from Hearts. Firstly Sam Nicholson cut in beautifully (again) from the left and was very unlucky to see his shot come off the crossbar. A few minutes later, Arnaud Djoum spooned his effort over when he should have scored, as the Maltese side’s defence foundered following a home set piece.
Minutes after home boss Robbie Neilson brought on Juanma to chase the game, the cliched sucker punch was struck by Birkirkara. A swift counter attack found right back Edward Herrera, whose calm finish was greeted with (understandably) sheer joy from the away side and their 56 travelling supporters.
Following the second goal, Hearts finally upped the tempo and one of their most fluent attack moves of the night ended with Djoum’s cross being beautifully met by Connor “leapt like a” Sammon’s head – there were 17 minutes for Hearts to find two goals to take them through.
Unfortunately, nothing more came for the home side. There was no lack of effort but a lack of quality and cutting edge, with too many passes being either required before the ball made it to near the away penalty area, or simply going astray. The home support will no doubt look back on that penalty miss in the first half as the turning point in the game and indeed the tie – the Maltese side were jumping for joy at full time which showed the scalp they believed they had taken. An ignominious early European exit for yet another Scottish club side, sadly.
What I will say though, is that Tynecastle is a great place to watch a game of football. As a curious observer with a bit of a leaning to the home team, I’ll definitely be back.
Heart of Midlothian 1-2 Birkirkara (Sammon; Bubalovic, Herrera)
Birkirkara win 2-1 on aggregate