It’s officially time to start digging out the passports in preparation for a European tour next season. Heart of Midlothian secured third place in the Premiership after Kilmarnock lost 4-1 to Rangers at Ibrox on Sunday afternoon.

In the end, it has been a fairly comfortable third place finish for the Jam Tarts, and some fans may even be forgiven for feeling a touch anti-climatic about their end of season after the Scottish Cup semi-final loss to Rangers - the same stage and opponent that ended their league cup campaign. However, 2023/24 has been a fantastic season for the Gorgie club, and with the major change in European competitions this summer, it could absolutely be a platform to build from, invest and grow with the aim of challenging for honours in Scotland.

It’s Hearts' second third-place finish in the last three years. A feat which shouldn’t be dismissed; city rivals Hibs have only managed a third-place finish twice since 2005 and only four times since the late 1970s. It’s a great achievement and reward for the hard work the Hearts squad and management have put in this season. We are all acutely aware of the constraints Scottish football is under (the prize money awarded to teams in Scotland for league positions is a drop in the ocean compared to the money that can be earned in Europe) - making European football the true reward for finishing in third.

History in Europe

It is, almost unbelievably, the first time ever that Hearts have qualified for European competition for three seasons in a row. Aberdeen managed eight consecutive seasons in Europe from 2015-2022, while Hibs were one of Scotland’s best teams in Europe for the five seasons in a row they played there in the 1970s. Dundee United were in Europe for 14 consecutive seasons from the late 70s to early 90s, reaching a European Cup semi-final and a UEFA cup final - and spending five of those seasons ranked in the top 10 clubs in all of Europe.

Dunfermline, Kilmarnock, St Johnstone and Motherwell have all previously managed at least three consecutive seasons in Europe. It’s fair to say Hearts have just ticked off a European achievement that is long overdue.

Hearts’ most successful season in Europe was 1988/1989 – they contributed the most coefficient points to Scotland’s total (more than Rangers & Celtic combined) as they reached the UEFA Cup quarter final. They were eliminated by Bayern Munich 2-1 on aggregate, following a truly historic first leg 1-0 victory over the Germans at Tynecastle Park in front of over 26,000 Jambos. So the question and dreams of all Hearts fans will be – can they have a truly memorable season in Europe in 2024/25?

I believe under the new tournament formats that they can, and I’ll explain why in this article. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s first look at what’s in store for Hearts.

READ MORE: Hearts in Europe lowdown: New format, prize money, possible opponents

European entry point

Scotland finished last season ninth in the coefficient, rankings which means that Hearts have at least guaranteed Conference League Phase football (taking the Scottish Cup winners' European entry place). This is because they will enter in the Europa League play-off round; win that play-off and qualify for the Europa League phase; or lose that play-off and drop straight into the Conference League Phase.

The play-off dates are now confirmed as Thursday 22nd and Thursday 29th August 2024, just before the summer transfer window closes on Monday 2nd September. Entering Europe at the last qualifying round at the end of August should be good for Hearts because the Premiership kicks off three weeks earlier on the 3rd of August. Hearts therefore will have had a few games to get up to match fitness, compared with Kilmarnock or St Mirren in fourth place – they’ll enter in the second qualifying round a month earlier on Thursday 25th July, before our domestic season is underway.

Hearts will find out their opponents in the play-off round draw on Monday 5th August 2024, and their possible opponents will be confirmed at the end of the current season. Although not confirmed, we can look at the league tables around Europe and estimate the type of team that Hearts may face in qualifying.

A little bit of realism will be required, as there will be 24 teams in the Europa League play-off round and Hearts will likely be one of, if not the lowest, ranked teams. They will be unseeded and so any of the 12 seeded teams they will face will be incredibly difficult. We won’t know exactly who these opponents are until the previous three qualification rounds are complete by early August. However, as it stands, and making a lot of assumptions of who will reach the play-off round, we can get an indication of the type of opponent Hearts are likely to face.

Using estimated squad values from, it’s clear that even within the seeded teams there will likely be a massive range of opposition strength. Hearts would obviously be massive underdogs against a team like Braga or Dinamo Zagreb, but conversely they would have a good chance of progression if drawn against the likes of Israeli outfit Hapoel Be’er Sheva or Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova.

READ MORE: Eight Hearts stats and what they tell us about Steven Naismith's side

Finances on offer

When either of Scotland’s big two are faced with the option of either reaching the Champions League or the Europa League, there is a clear preference. The Champions League is the pinnacle of European football and the finances on offer reflect that – finishing last in the Champions League with zero points earns them more prize money than reaching the Europa League final.

However, when it comes to our third force and the choice between Europa League and Conference league - the choice isn’t as clear cut. The drop off in finances isn’t nearly as severe as from the Champions League to the Europa League, but the chances to be competitive in the Conference League are a lot higher for a Scottish club. The overall UEFA pot is split three ways: 74 per cent goes to the Champions League, 17 per cent to the Europa League and nearly nine per cent to the Conference League.

If we look at just the ‘starting fees’, which is an equal amount paid to all teams competing in each tournament (only one aspect of the prize money), it’s €18.62million in the Champions League, €4.31m in the Europa League and €3.17m in the Conference. So although there is less money involved in the Conference League, the drop-off is not nearly as steep as from the Champions League to the Europa League.

The exact figures on offer for each club won’t be known until UEFA’s complicated methodology involving a ranking of the value of all TV rights packages is confirmed in the summer. The good news for Scottish teams is that in Europe, our ranking is based on 10 per cent of the overall UK market. With Amazon (17 Champions League matches on Tuesday) and BBC (Wednesday night highlights package) joining TNT Sports in purchasing the UK rights for a combined £500m per season, our ranking will likely be higher than some ‘bigger’ nations like Portugal or Netherlands. But until we get official confirmation in the summer, we can work out an estimation of the minimum amounts on offer in both tournaments, based on four different performance scenarios. The figures here exclude ticket sales and ‘performance’ money paid for each point earned in the tournaments.

The new format in the Europa League also sees an increase to eight league phase matches (the additional two matches played at the end of January), whereas the Conference League remains at only six matches. The income from the additional home match and the higher guaranteed revenue means that Hearts’ financial director will almost certainly be hoping for Europa League qualification. From a fan’s enjoyment point of view however, there is a strong argument for playing in the Conference League instead.

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Which tournament would be best?

As there are only six matches in the Conference League, the league phase will end in December - but the prospect of reaching the February knockout rounds is much increased in the third-tier tournament.

Again, making assumptions based on current league standings and progression through the knockout rounds, we can create a ‘projected’ league phase of 36 teams for each tournament and compare the ‘level’ of potential opposition.

Although not the elite of the Champions League, the Europa League is still an extremely high level of competition. The top 10-15 teams will feel they should be able to compete in the Champions League, never mind the Europa League, and so naturally the likelihood of Hearts winning matches and progressing to the knockout rounds are reduced.

That's where the double-edged sword of the Europa League play-off round comes in. Winning that tie and reaching the Europa League Phase would be a phenomenal achievement – Hearts haven’t reached a group stage through qualifiers since 2004 and no Scottish team outside the Old Firm has managed it since Aberdeen in 2007. But it’s highly likely that, unless Hearts were very fortunate with the eight opponents they are drawn to face, the play-off victory may be the highlight of the campaign.

Contrast that with the Conference League. Although less guaranteed revenue, two less fixtures and less ‘glamorous’ opponents, I believe there’s a real chance that Hearts could go on to have a historic season in the Conference League.

The estimated average squad value is nearly €100m less than in the Europa League, and the average coefficient points of the opponent is less than half of the average in the Europa League. Therefore, the quality of opponent in the Conference League is undoubtedly lower, and there are lots more teams with lower coefficients and therefore less European experience. UEFA’s move to bringing back a third European trophy with the introduction of the Conference League in 2021 is the biggest risk to Scotland’s coefficient and where we are ranked in Europe. All the nations around us are picking up lots of coefficient points in this tournament, and so we are in a fight to try and maintain our status as a top-12 nation.

Remaining ranked in the top 12 is required to keep the guaranteed league phase football prize for the Scottish Cup winners, and so we can no longer view the third team’s entry as a ‘free hit’. Instead, we now have a tournament where Scottish teams have to believe they can compete and earn coefficient points, just the same as the top two teams need to in the top two competitions.

The quality of opposition in the Conference League is of a lower average standard, and so there will be numerous winnable matches. Our two entrants so far (Hearts in 2022/23 and Aberdeen in 2023/24) both managed to win matches and accumulate six points. Although an admirable effort, that wasn’t enough for either team to progress under the old format where 16 out of 32 (50 per cent) teams progressed to the knockout rounds. The bonus points on offer will now vary based on position finished in the 36-team league table, and the difference between the Champions League and the rest is now huge. However, there are still valuable points on offer by position finished in the Conference League table.

READ MORE: What Hearts can expect from James Penrice: Technique, drive, bags of potential

Optimism with the new format

Where my hopeful confidence for Hearts’ upcoming campaign is derived from though, is that in the new format 24 out of 36 teams (66.67 per cent) progress to the knockout stages. The top eight progress to the last 16 automatically, while teams in positions ninth-24th face off in a knockout round with the winners progressing to the last 16. This table demonstrates the reward on offer for each position in the table, with an example points total of what could be needed to reach each position.

The following retrospective and ‘theoretical’ 32-team league table is a slightly flawed example, because the new format is completely different and we cannot accurately project how many points will actually be required to progress to the next round. However, if we crudely create a ‘league’ table based purely on points won in this season’s Conference League by simply amalgamating the eight individual group tables, we can estimate how many points might be needed to be in the top 66 per cent of teams in the new format next season.

We can see that Aberdeen’s six points ‘would’ have been enough to enable them to finish in the top 66.6 per cent of teams, and therefore theoretically qualify for the knockout round ties in February.

Looking to the previous year, where Hearts also tallied six points, we can see that in that season the Gorgie club would have theoretically just finished outside the top 66.67 per cent of teams. With the new tournament having the same amount of league phase games (six per club) this indicates that six or seven points could well be enough to reach the knockout rounds.

This should give Hearts massive belief that they can reach that total and secure European football after Christmas, which would be phenomenal. However I would be aiming bigger than just reaching the knockout round. From there it would be a tie against a team that finished outside the top eight. This would be a two-legged tie to reach the last 16 - in previous seasons this would be against a team like Slovan Bratislava of Slovakia or Legia Warsaw of Poland. A team like Dnipro-1 of Ukraine or Ludogorets of Bulgaria. Of course, this would be incredibly difficult, but the level of team in the Conference League knockout rounds will be not too dissimilar to the level of quality of Rangers or Celtic. In a one-off match can Hearts beat a team that have won the Scottish Premiership 11 out of the last 12 years? Absolutely. They have done it twice this season alone.

If Hearts can keep the core of their squad together and recruit smartly in the summer, with the additional budget they will have, then I absolutely believe (and sincerely hope) they can create their own history in Europe in 2024/25. The important dates for your diary are below, including of course are the dates and destinations of the finals for all three competitions.

I will be tracking Hearts’ progress every step of the way - you can follow me on for weekly updates on the European journey of Heart of Midlothian.