Robbie Neilson shrugs off Hearts’ Europa Conference League ambition as he steps up Hibs showdown pressure

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Robbie Neilson knows that a victory over Hibs in the Scottish Cup semi-final would all but guarantee Hearts a place in the Europa Conference League group stage next season.

Even losing to Rangers or Celtic in the final would be enough, as long as the Jambos finish third in the Premiership – and with a 13-point lead, it would take a monumental collapse for that position to be snatched from them.

But Tynecastle boss Neilson is adamant the European prize money – and the estimated £3million it would be worth to this club – is insignificant compared to the far more overriding ambition of knocking out their nearest rival. and the most bitter of the Scottish Cup.

Hearts will face Livingston and Ross County in their next two league games before a double game against Hibs will set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

Win the championship game on April 9 and third place is all but sealed. Triumph at Hampden the following week and there is a Scottish Cup final to look forward to at the end of what will have been a phenomenal first season back in the top flight.

Neilson knows all of this.

He also knows that all his team’s fans really want is to dominate Hibs in this semi-final.

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He said: “The Europa Conference League would be huge, but it would also be huge to knock Hibs out of the cup and get to the final.

“And if you asked our support what they’d rather do, join the conference league or knock Hibs out of the cup, I’m pretty sure 99.9% of Hearts fans would choose.”

And when it was pointed out to him that one (Europa) would be a by-product of the other, he shrugged: “The most important thing is to win this game. Anyway, so be it.

“They’re all desperate to be involved. It’s going to be a brilliant week, but we have to make sure we go in good shape and don’t get distracted by it. We have to focus on Livingston on Saturday.

“Going through the cup was great for us. It also keeps the players motivated. Because when you have a 13-point lead in the league, sometimes players can look away from it a bit.

“But with these games coming up, they have to be there and I’m delighted about that.”

He was also delighted to learn this week that Australian right-back Nathaniel Atkinson has won his first full international call-up for the vital World Cup qualifiers against Japan and Saudi Arabia.

With team-mate Cammy Devlin also knocking on the door, Neilson is confident Hearts’ fame abroad as a route to international football will help him bring in even better players in the future.



Cameron Devlin scores to make it 2-0 Hearts against St Mirren

He added: “We are really delighted. We spoke to Nat when we tried to sign him to come here, play for Hearts, raise his profile and try to get into the national team. He managed to do it. I still think there is a lot of development in him as a player.

“And I think Cammy was part of the provisional squad, which is around 60 players. I don’t think he will be far away. He just needs to get fit and get into the next one.

“Hearts should be a team with international players as the majority of the starting line-up, whether for Scotland or other nations. It’s great from that perspective, but also to attract players.

“We can show them the journey we managed to create for a couple of boys.

“It’s two big games, Saudi Arabia and Japan, both first and second in their group. It’s two games they have to win, really. It’s great that he has the opportunity to win. He’ll leave after the game on Saturday and he’ll be back on Wednesday before we play Ross County.

“From our point of view, we don’t lose him for key games, which is good.

“Nat is a confident boy anyway, so I’m sure leaving will help him, playing with good players and against good players. It will improve him and that’s a great thing for him. We’re delighted that he’s leaving and I hope he comes back in great shape, ready to go again.

With Australia calling up one of their players, Neilson believes Scotland’s Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley are attracting Steve Clarke’s attention, even though they missed out on selection for next week’s international matches.

He said: “Both did very well. In the end, it’s up to Steve to decide. He decided to choose other players, so they have to keep doing what he is doing.

“If they do that, he will ask more questions for the next team.

“We have big games coming up – a chance to get into Europe and win a cup – if they can do that it will increase their stock even more and give Steve more questions.”



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