The fleeting smile across Cammy Devlin’s face is more than slightly mischievous. Booked in two of Hearts’ three Europa Conference League qualifiers so far, he will walk a potential suspension tightrope against PAOK Salonika in Greece next week. Another yellow card would see the tenacious midfielder suspended for the first group match should his club progress.
He would happily accept a caution and even a dismissal if it meant Hearts going through in the hostile cauldron of Thessaloniki’s Toumba Stadium. “Absolutely, I would take a red card as long as it puts the team where we want to be,” smirked Devlin. “It's not about me as an individual and I'm sure all the boys who have had bookings will say the same.
“We’ll do anything and we’ll put our bodies on the line and we will show that in our performances. I know I definitely try to, but it is not about me as an individual. If me getting a booking or a red card means that we go through to the group stage, then it’s all good.”
The reality is that Hearts prevailing would be a major shock following Thursday’s 2-1 first-leg defeat at Tynecastle Park. Winning away from home in Europe is a rarity for many Scottish clubs, although Devlin can recall a 2-0 victory over RFS in Riga during last season’s group stage as evidence of what can be achieved. It is not exaggerating the situation to point out that PAOK are several upgrades on the Latvians.
“They’re a good side but, I think we showed enough as a team, especially conceding so quickly after we’d scored a goal,” said Devlin. “The character, and the resilience and the fight within the team – we had enough chances to win the game and had a goal ruled out, which was so unfortunate. In big games, it is about the moments and that moment went against us. I still think we showed enough to win the game and we will go into next Thursday with a lot of positives. It’s all to play for.”
“All the best teams, the big teams, they come up with performances that put them in positions to play European football and that’s what we want. Playing in Europe is a privilege and something you earn. We are in a position now where we are 2-1 down going into an away leg and it’s roles reversed from last week [against Rosenborg].”
Some of last season’s adventures might be called upon to prepare the Hearts players for Thessaloniki. Istanbul Basaksehir were overwhelmingly strong opposition, and visiting Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi offered a hint of how difficult an away match is against major European sides.
“Next week might be something that a lot of us have never seen in terms of the crowd, but the game is played on the field and it’s about showing character and resilience,” remarked Devlin. “There is a feeling of calmness within the squad and the game is played on the field, not the grandstand. It is about us, as players, doing our jobs and winning the game.
“If you go back to a game like that with Istanbul, there’s the gulf in quality and sometimes you’ve got to look at the teams and the budgets that they have compared to us. As a club, the fans included, we have stepped up and as a team it has been an experience and that definitely helps. There were a lot of positives to take from Thursday. We now have a massive game on Sunday [away to Dundee] but we did it last week – came off a tough game to win – and it is about us earning the right to be in Europe. We have to do that again but this time away from home.”
Players and management at Hearts clearly feel aggrieved at travelling to Greece with a deficit. There was little between the two teams at Tynecastle, the true quality of Serbian midfielder Andrija Zivkovic perhaps the deciding factor. He won the penalty from which Stefan Schwab scored PAOK’s equaliser and then produced a sumptuous strike for the winner on the night.
“That's the most frustrating bit. When you come off the field and you know, like last year against the likes of Fiorentina, that they were a better team than us,” admitted Devlin. “On those occasions you just hold your hands up and shake their hands and say ‘well done’ because they are the better team.
“That wasn’t really the case [against PAOK] and I feel there is so much fire in our belly. We experienced it last year but on Thursday we were not walking off that pitch thinking ‘we got absolutely battered’. Not by any stretch. We are taking positives. It has been a massive learning curve playing in Europe and there is a lot of excitement within the group and within the fans. We definitely don't want next Thursday to be our last European game of the season.”
Devlin has thrived on the Continental stage so far this term, none more so than with his two goals to help Hearts eliminate Rosenborg. “I enjoyed that – it was one of the better days. I love playing football, love playing for Hearts. I think it's a privilege for an Aussie kid to be playing in European football. It is really cool and something I didn't think I would get the opportunity to do.
“I like to think of myself as someone who rises to an occasion and I don't want to be known as someone who is hiding. I really enjoy these experiences and being in Europe means two games a week instead of one. That’s more football and, as a player, that’s good.”