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Csaba Laszlo <-auth Anthony Brown auth-> Eddie Smith
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Hearts' Neilson wants to pick up Euro

ROBBIE NEILSON heads for Hamilton tomorrow with the whiff of Europe in his nostrils, and the Hearts right-back is in no mood to let the resurgent Lanarkshire men throw him off the scent of a much-needed continental return.
For a spell between 2003 and 2006 Hearts fans spent more time in airport departure lounges than they did at their work, with Sarajevo, Bordeaux, Rotterdam, Basel, Athens and Prague just some of the ports of call for merry-making Jambos. However, since returning from the Czech capital almost two and a half years ago, the passports of those connected with the Tynecastle side have been rendered all but useless.

Neilson, who enjoyed one of the finest moments of his career when he scored a last-gasp UEFA Cup winner away to FC Basel a little over four years ago, recognises it's an issue that requires rectifying.

"It's disappointing that we've not been in Europe for a while," he said. "I've been part of some memorable nights in Europe so it's extremely frustrating that we've not been there for a few years. It's good for the players and it's good for the fans, so it would be great if we could get back into it again. I've been involved in some great results for Hearts in Europe, so that makes you determined to get back there.

"Ideally you'd like to play in Europe every year, but it's not been possible over the past few years. Hopefully we'll be back there next season."

In joint third place and on the back of a morale-boosting three-game winning run, Hearts are well placed as they aim to step up their European pursuit. The prospect of taking outright command of third place by close of play tomorrow is one which provides Neilson and his high-flying colleagues with additional motivation for their potentially-hazardous Lanarkshire liaison.

"We know that, if we beat Hamilton and Dundee United lose to Rangers at Ibrox, then we would go third on our own, so it's a bit of an incentive for us," he said. "But we just need to look at our own house before we start looking at how United are doing. We know that, if we win all our games, we'll finish third. It would be nice to go into third tomorrow, but it's more important that we are there at the end of the season."

With Aberdeen just a point behind Hearts and United, the race for third place promises to be riveting. Csaba Laszlo's men also have the small matter of a Scottish Cup fifth-round meeting with Falkirk at Tynecastle next weekend. It's all a far cry from this time last year when Hearts were out of the Scottish Cup and scrapping away at the wrong end of the SPL table amid howls of derision from the stands.

"It's great as a player to be involved in a battle like this," continued Neilson. "Anyone can beat anyone else, including the Old Firm, so it leaves the race wide open for third and fourth place.

"It's going to be an exciting close to the season. At this time last year we were out of the Scottish Cup and toiling at the bottom of the league with a lot of gloom about the place, so it makes a massive difference to go into the closing part of the season knowing we've still got plenty to play for.

"The team's coming together at the right time and we've still got a chance of going for the Scottish Cup and a European place, which can only be good for everyone." In order to maintain the feelgood factor, Neilson knows Hearts will need to protect their 100 per cent record against Hamilton tomorrow. However, the 28-year-old is taking nothing for granted, as he remembers how hard Hearts had to graft to see off Billy Reid's men in each of their two previous encounters, a 2-1 win at New Douglas Park in August and a fortunate 1-0 victory on a hairy November evening in Gorgie thanks to a goal from Christian Nade.

To make matters trickier for Hearts, Accies will be buoyed by having garnered maximum points from their last four matches. They also notched a 1-0 victory at Kilmarnock last weekend with what Reid described as their best performance of the season.

"We're looking forward to going through there, but we know it's going to be difficult because they've picked up a few decent results lately," said Neilson. "They're at home, so they'll fancy their chances of pulling off a wee upset. They're a hard team to beat through there, as a few teams have found out recently. They've got a really good mix of youth and experience. Although we've beaten them twice this season, they've given us a bit of a scare in both games."

Neilson is thrilled with the character his team has displayed this season. Having seen a five-game winning streak in November replaced by a five-game run without a victory through December and early January, their challenge for third place could easily have collapsed. Instead Hearts simply embarked on their latest winning run.

The Scotland cap insists the late goals in each of those three victories, particularly the last-minute winner against Inverness last weekend, provides evidence of the desire in the Tynecastle ranks to finish the season on a high.

"We had a good run before Christmas, but then had a few draws and defeats so it's been good to get back to winning ways," he said. "We showed good resilience to come back and win against Inverness and that could be a vital one at the end of the season.

"We've scored quite a few late goals recently against Hibs, Kilmarnock and Inverness, which I think is a sign of the desire in the team to keep going till the end. We're not content just to win games 1-0, we always want to try and win by a few more."

A further fillip for Neilson is the fact Hearts' January "firesale" has so far failed to materialise. With the transfer window due to close at 5.00pm on Monday, there remains a chance that Laszlo's prospering squad could remain intact at least until the end of the season.

"From a playing point of view, it's good that no-one's been sold so far," he said. "Hopefully we can keep the squad together beyond the close of the window because, if we do, then without a shadow of a doubt we can challenge for third place."

Taken from the Scotsman

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