The Gorgie Ultras, alongside all other Hearts supporters, were pivotal to last week’s European success against Rosenborg. Tynecastle Park shook to its ancient foundations as the noise level peaked with Cammy Devlin’s stoppage-time winning goal against the Norwegians. An even louder roar is required against PAOK Salonika.
Greeks are known for fanatical supporters so PAOK won’t be easily intimidated in Thursday’s first leg of the Europa Conference League play-off. Their own Toumba Stadium is a hotbed of flares, hostility and general seethe no matter the opposition. Tynecastle may not hold much fear initially, but the Ultras and their fellow Jambos do have one advantage.
“Playing in Greece, PAOK are probably used to tough fans but the stands here are right on top of you,” pointed out Kye Rowles, the Hearts defender. “The atmosphere might be as loud as what they’ve had, but with the Olympic stadiums over there I don’t think it’s right on top of you. If we get off to a fast start it will tell pretty quick in the first 10 or 15 minutes.”
Hearts players and management now visibly embrace the Ultras before matches. The group formed last year and is gradually growing in numbers as younger supporters gravitate towards the black-clad group at the front of Tynecastle’s Gorgie Road Stand. Technical director Steven Naismith and Captain Lawrence Shankland feel it is vital to engage.
“It comes from Naisy wanting to get everyone behind us and get them fired up for the game,” explained Rowles. “Shanks, being the skipper, wants to get that relationship going between us and them, especially the Ultras. Last Thursday they were amazing, not just with their own section but really engaging the whole stadium together as one.
“If we’re all on the same page, it’s a really positive environment to be around. If that gets them riled up and clapping from us showing our appreciation that they’re there, then that can only boost us in a positive way. That’s the thought behind it.”
From fans to directors, everyone connected with Hearts knows what is at stake in this tie. Prevailing over two legs earns progress to the Conference League group stage and a £5million bounty. Hearts secured that income last year – banking more than £3m in profit – but could not finish third in last season’s Premiership to guarantee the same route this time.
The Edinburgh club held a seven-point lead in third spot – 10 ahead of Aberdeen – but a poor sequence of results saw their Pittodrie rivals usurp them in April and leave them fourth. “Obviously it did not go the way we wanted it to, letting that kind of points margin slip. It still makes us angry, to be honest,” admitted Rowles. “This is our redemption act in a way. We are fully committed to doing our best for this tie and hopefully we get the result we feel we deserve.”
The Australian defender missed last season’s group-stage adventure to Riga, Florence and Istanbul because of a broken foot. The frustration of watching matches from his sofa is still vivid. “I was still supporting the boys and watching them against those teams. Even hearing them speak about the players and the crowds, it has given me some insight. I just want to witness it for myself.”