Burned by the fickle nature of two-legged knockout football just weeks ago, the Hearts defender Frankie Kent won’t shirk the heat in Greece this week. He knows anything is possible. Thursday’s Europa Conference League play-off return match against PAOK Salonika may look daunting given the Edinburgh club’s 2-1 deficit. Kent can testify that even the near-impossible turnarounds should never be discounted.
He was in the Peterborough United side which travelled to Hillsborough in May to face Sheffield Wednesday in a decisive League One play-off second leg. Sitting 4-0 ahead from the first leg at home, Peterborough seemed ready to ignite the Championship promotion fireworks. They lost 5-1 after extra-time and Wednesday went up instead after a 5-3 victory on penalties.
Kent is over that disappointment after joining Hearts during the summer. That does not mean he can erase it from memory. In fact, it will be a useful experience to draw on in the white-hot atmosphere of PAOK’s Toumba Stadium on Thursday evening.
“I think you always do draw on it, no matter where I am or who I'm playing against. It just comes with playing the games and the experiences I've had,” said the giant Englishman. “Greece will be different to anything I've experienced before. Some of the boys have played in hostile atmosphere so I will be taking a gauge from them in terms of European ties away from home.
“That [Peterborough result] shows things can turn very quickly. PAOK are a good team but we know we can go there and hurt them with the way we played at home last Thursday. We are disappointed to be behind but it's one goal. Only one goal. We can't go there full of doom and gloom. We've got nothing to lose. We will go out full of confidence and see what happens.”
Hearts jet out of Edinburgh on Tuesday evening and will train at Toumba 24 hours later. Back-to-back defeats against PAOK and Dundee make the exhilaration of beating Rosenborg with a late winner in the last round seem like a long time ago. There is no time to dwell, for the task ahead is of gargantuan proportions.
“It was disappointing to lose the first leg. It was obviously small margins,” explained Kent. “Shanks [Lawrence Shankland] had a goal disallowed and then they hit one from 25 yards. We did our best to try and block it but it wasn't to be. We have to be confident. I feel we held our own at Tynecastle and played well. We probably had the better chances. We know what we can do over there.
“You get the feel of a game early. It was a bit frantic but we said to each other afterwards we have nothing to hide. We need to go there and show what we can do. We showed glimpses of it at home but we weren't at our absolute best. We have nothing to lose now.”
The stakes are high for both clubs. The over winner at the play-off stage gains passage to the Conference League group stage. That guarantees a further six European ties between September and December, plus around £5million extra in income. Hearts sampled the groups last year and want to do so again. To succeed, they must pull off one of the most spectacular victories of their entire history.
Kent moved to Edinburgh partly for these European experiences and is keen to savour the volatile atmosphere in Thessaloniki. “Yeah, why not? It's something to embrace and look forward to. We know it's going to be tough. We know what the atmosphere will be like. It's very hostile but, like I said, it's something to embrace.
"There is one goal in it and we can definitely do it. We need a very good performance. They are different games in Europe. I feel PAOK played a different style, quick on the counter-attack with neat and tidy players but also a physical presence as well. Every game is going to be different at this level. I thought they were a good team so we will go there and try to do our best. There was a bit of disappointment after the first leg but also a feeling that the tie is not done. We are only halfway and there is still 90 minutes to go.”
One of the differences he refers to is the southern-European dark arts in football which are not always evident in the Scottish Premiership. PAOK employed some of them at Tynecastle but may indulge further on home territory backed by thousands of their vociferous supporters. “Yeah, I think so. There was a lot of stuff they were doing but it's part of the game. We need to keep our cool, go there knowing our gameplan and stick to it. It will be difficult because the emotions of the game will be very high. We know what's at stake. It's just about trying to keep our cool, go in there with confidence and take the game to them.”
Kent is again expected to be tasked with shackling PAOK’s Spanish striker Brandon, who was a mobile and dangerous customer in the first leg at Tynecastle. He likes to drop deep and link with advancing midfield players when possible. “He was decent, good movement, sharp and quite strong. It was another test for me,” said the Hearts centre-back. “This week will be different because no two games are the same. They might change something so we will be prepared.”