The prospect of European group-stage football next term is an enticing one for Heart of Midlothian and Steven Naismith. But the head coach won’t allow his players to become overawed when mixing it with the continent’s best.

Third place and a spot in next season’s Europa League play-off round were confirmed on Sunday afternoon courtesy of Rangers’ 4-1 win over fourth-placed Kilmarnock, allowing the Tynecastle Park hierarchy to get the ball rolling on preparations for a European tour next season. Whether Hearts make it through that play-off or drop down to the Europa Conference League, they can look forward to receiving a minimum of £5million in television revenue and prize money.

Looking at the big picture, the huge sums on offer mean that the financial rewards will be the most significant aspect of Hearts’ involvement in European football next season. But for Naismith, the campaign on the continent represents something else: another yardstick to measure the team’s progress, and an opportunity to demonstrate that the players fear no one.

Knowing your worth, backing yourself against some Europe’s top players, learning from your mistakes on a bigger stage – these are the real rewards on offer as far as Naismith. And the 37-year-old is something of an authority on the subject.

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“For me, you’re learning all the time,” the Hearts head coach explained. “There are loads of mistakes that are made – some get covered by a result, some don’t. Some are subtle and don’t have an impact on the game. That whole learning side is happening all the time for me.

“In terms of the belief, as a player I was like ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ going into every game and that’s probably the root of what gave me my success. I was up for everything.

“My first Champions League game was Barcelona away at a time when they were the best team in the world, and some are saying maybe in the history of the game. I never went into it thinking I was worried. I saw the opportunity in it and that’s the same way I have been as a coach.

“I found it hard at the start. When you’re a young player and you have not experienced it before, it’s full on. When you look back you realise that. But you’re either a player that thrives on it and has that mentality that pushes you over the edge and makes you able to deal with it, or you’re not.

“When I was at Rangers there were quite a few of us who came in at the same time and experienced European football for the first time. And we dealt with it well, eventually. But then if you become an international player that’s the normal schedule. For us that’s the biggest challenge. We have a young team, we’ve risen to the challenges this season has presented us with. Next season is the next one.”

There is one particular challenge that awaits next season that Naismith is more conscious of than any other: the need for the team to adapt to the Thursday-Sunday schedule that accompanies playing in UEFA’s second and third-tier competitions. It’s no coincidence that Hearts’ slow start to the league campaign coincided with Conference League qualifiers at the beginning of the season.

With European fixtures guaranteed up until December at the very least, it’s an area where Hearts need to improve if they are to firmly establish the club as Scotland’s third force. Glamorous fixtures in exotic locations are all well and good, but the bread-and-butter of Premiership football has to be the priority.

“That is probably the most short-term challenge we have,” Naismith explained. “People talk about, ‘we need to close the gap [to Old Firm], we need to be challenging’.

“Our biggest challenge is dealing with the schedule of being in Europe and competing in the league, so that the next season you are in the same position. That’s the challenge. The No.1 goal for us at the moment.

“You can have one good season, get into Europe’s group stages, but if the next season you are in the bottom-six, there’s no progression there. That’s the problem.

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“It’s not going to be easy. We are going to ask a lot of the squad because it is not just the quality of the teams you are playing and the fatigue, it’s the travel, the mindset, relentless nature of constantly thinking about football every minute of every day. That’s the part that’s the biggest difference for players. Normally they go week to week and you have time to spread out the detail.”

Many players in the current crop at Tynecastle Park do have past experiences to draw upon as Hearts gear up for another European adventure. Back in 2023/23, Robbie Neilson’s side made their debut appearance in the Conference League, picking up six points in as many games before being eliminated at the group stage.

The team did, however, remain competitive on the domestic front. By the time Hearts were knocked out of Europe, they occupied sixth place in the Premiership table with 17 points from 12 games, and were three points behind third-placed Hibernian with a game in hand. A disastrous run of form in March ultimately led to Neilson’s dismissal, but Naismith believes the team can take Heart from the manner in which they previously juggled domestic and European football.

“Yeah, exactly,” he said. “And the squad need to take a lot of credit because that season they were in a not bad place by the time they came out of Europe. That gives you a lot of confidence that we have an understanding of what’s to come.

“The way I work compared to Robbie is slightly different in that I have rotated a little more than he did. I feel we build a squad and we believe in everybody within that squad. We’ve shown that this season and that will be really important next season.”

With the summer transfer window looming, adding to that squad will soon be a matter of priority for Naismith. More games mean more bodies are required, of course, but the Hearts head coach likes to work with a relatively small group. Then there’s the added bonus of the B team, with young, hungry players ready to make the step up.

Naismith intends to use the market – pre-contract agreements have already been struck for Ross County playmaker Yan Dhanda, Livingston left-back James Penrice and Motherwell midfielder Blair Spittal – but he will also promote from within where he thinks a young player is capable of making the step up. Academy products Macaulay Tait and Aidan Denholm, he points out, have done so ably this season.

“You might have one or two more players than this season, in terms of experienced players,” Naismith said of his squad-building plans. “But I’m not going to bring in loads of players who, later down the line, destroy what you’re trying to build within the group.

“We have got good academy players, we want to try and give them opportunities. And that’s what we are giving them. There’s one or two, plus Finlay Pollock, who can step up and be part of the group. Macaulay and Denholm have done it this season, there’s a few more who can do it next season. So we’ll rely on that in parts as well.”

Naismith insists that it won’t be a case of playing his big guns in Europe and relying on youngsters on the domestic front. Rotation, he says, will be of utmost importance – but that doesn’t mean that he won’t get the club chequebook out if the right opportunity presents itself.

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He said: “I wish it was as straightforward as that! You’ve got to get the balance.

“First of all, every game in Scotland is hard. You don’t go into many games thinking, ‘if we’re at 70 per cent we’ll get a result today’. That’s the hard part.

“But what we have got to do is give them chances and again, like we say to the academy players all the time, we’ll give them opportunities but they need to deserve those and earn them. We’re not just doing it for face value, there’s no longevity in that.

“So it will be a mixture of both, but on the recruitment side we’ll sign players we think will make us better, and we’ll sign players we think will be assets to us. If that’s maybe one or two more than we’d like because the timing suits us to do it, we’ll do it. But on the flip of that I’m not just going to sign players for the sake of signing them.”