When Phillip II of Macedon was busy conquering Greece in 345BC, it wasn’t long before he turned his eye towards Sparta. The great general issued a grave proclamation to the city-state, ordering them to submit or face his wrath. If his army entered Sparta, he warned, every man would be killed, the women and children would be enslaved, and the city would be razed. The Spartans, in typically defiant fashion, issued a trademark laconic response: ‘if’.

Those involved in the Edinburgh club that shares its name with the famous Ancient Greek civilisation are posing a similar question today: what if? With Heart of Midlothian coming to Ainslie Park on Scottish Cup duty on Saturday, players and supporters alike wouldn’t be human if the thought of causing a famous upset hadn’t crossed their minds. The odds are stacked against The Spartans, but it was ever thus.

There is, of course, a precedent. Few would have given them a chance in the group stages of the Viaplay Cup alongside Dundee United, Partick Thistle and Falkirk, but Spartans stunned United on the opening day of the season to secure a famous victory, and gave a good account of themselves in the other two games against full-time opposition. It was further proof, if it was needed, that they were more than capable of playing within the SPFL set-up.

The club’s long-serving manager Dougie Samuel will be going into the game with hope more than expectation. He is realistic about his side’s chances and knows well the scale of the task facing his players. Despite it all though, it’s an occasion he is relishing. It was only a year ago that Spartans were playing against Hearts B in the Lowland League, and now here they are: an SPFL club facing the real deal in a competitive match. It is an apt occasion, Samuel notes, to pause and take notice of the club’s progress on and off the park.

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“I don’t think I’m any different to any other manager – you try your best to keep everything normal and limit the interruptions,” Samuel said of his team's preparation. “The reality is that it’s a privilege to be in this position. It’s a situation to be embraced and to be enjoyed. This is the type of draw you dream of at the start of the cup competition, so when it comes along I think it is important that you take the time to enjoy it.

“The Viaplay Cup was good preparation for this game because you are playing against full-time opposition. When you’re a part-time team going up against a full-time team, you typically don’t see as much of the ball and you have to work that wee bit harder. It’s probably more the mental side that’s more demanding because you have to be switched on at every moment of the game.

“I think those games were good preparation for this, but we also know that this is a big step up. We are playing the third-best team in the country right now, and they happen to be flying, so I’m not sure it’s a great time to be facing Hearts. But we would have bitten your hand off for this draw at the start of the competition or after we had beaten Arbroath, so we are going to enjoy the whole occasion. It’s not often we’ve got a full house at Ainslie Park.

“You’ve got the added element of it being an Edinburgh derby too. There was some debate around whether the game would be played here or elsewhere. There was a clear financial advantage to playing it elsewhere but I don’t think that was ever a realistic option, unless the police said they had to move it for safety reasons. We would have been hugely disappointed if that was the case because the whole point of building this new home for the Spartans family, and social village for the wider community, was that we are able to host days like Saturday.

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“It’s been such a journey. It hasn’t happened in a straight line and there have been ups and downs, but generally speaking it has been incremental and organic growth. It has been done in a phased way.

“Twenty years ago the priority was building a new home and community engagement – and that’s still the case, with the work that we do in the community on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis. It’s more important than what happens on the pitch on a Saturday. But the Hearts game is a huge occasion for the Spartans family and it’s a day to celebrate just how far we’ve come.”

A glance at the League Two table further demonstrates Spartans’ progress. In their first season in the fourth tier, they find themselves in third place and pushing for promotion. With the team in good form (they had won five on the bounce before losing to runaway league leaders Stenhousemuir last weekend), a scalp already claimed in the previous round’s victory over Arbroath, and Hearts coming to a lower-league ground, some might say the conditions are ripe for a famous upset – but Samuel doesn’t believe that home advantage is what it once was. And he is in no doubt that Steven Naismith and his players won’t approach the game lightly.

“Football has changed,” Samuel reasoned. “If you take our game and you take Forfar v Hibs – if you go back a few decades those games would be getting played on grass pitches that typically would be brick hard or mud baths at this time of year. That was a great leveller but today these games are getting played on synthetic pitches.

“Every club in Scotland trains on synthetic pitches, and Hearts played a bounce game against Kilmarnock on Monday on a synthetic pitch. It’s the exact same carpet as ours. That shows you the level of respect that they are giving us and the due diligence that they’ve done in terms of their preparation.

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“Nobody here underestimates how difficult a game this will be for us but you want to test yourself, you want to be challenged. It will reveal to us and some of our players that they have maybe got another level in them. My hope is that the players embrace it and respond in a positive way.”

“The players deserve so much credit for how they have responded to the challenge of stepping up,” he added. “They have really adjusted well to life in League Two and in every game this season, we’ve been in the game. We have lost a few but they have mainly been to Stenhousemuir, who are having a wonderful season, and we lost one at home to Peterhead.

“I encourage the guys to embrace the challenge and enjoy the experience. I think it’s important to be optimistic and to go into any challenge with hope. I think it stands you in good stead and it gives you a better chance of being successful. We understand the scale of the challenge but equally, I think you have to be optimistic.”

This won’t be the first time that Samuel and Naismith have locked horns in opposing dugouts on a matchday. The pair met on Lowland League duty during Naismith’s stint as head coach of the B team, and they renewed acquaintances in Gorgie earlier this season.

“They were kind enough to host us at the end of last year when we played a behind-closed-doors friendly at Tynecastle,” Samuel explained. “The hospitality that Steven and his staff showed was first class – and I mean first class. We went back to his office after the game for a cup of tea, some food, a chat about the season so far and the game we’d just played. That was a real thrill for me and my staff.

“I’ve got a huge amount of respect for everyone associated with Hearts, and we have got that link with Ann [Budge] as well. Her brother has been part of the Spartans family and Ann has also supported our foundation over the years too. I’ve got nothing but respect for the job that she has done and the job that Steven is doing.”

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Samuel has been busy preparing his players for Saturday’s showpiece occasion, and it has been a case of all hands on deck this week across the club. Spartans’ chairman Craig Graham has had his hands full sorting out the ticketing arrangements, and the process has been far from straightforward. Playing the game at Ainslie Park has its own complications, but Spartans is a broad church and Graham is keen to ensure that everyone is represented.

“There have been so many people working on this, partly because we chose to do the ticket distribution ourselves,” Graham explained. “We could have done it online and done first come, first served but there are so many elements of Spartans and we wanted to make sure each group got an allocation.

“The Spartans has got three elements: the adult’s men’s and women’s teams; we have got a massive youth section that has got about 600 youngsters from the age of eight up; and then we’ve got a charity that runs the site. There are youth workers and we have our own school, and it also does all the coaching for kids between three and eight.

“So you go through it – the players got two comps, then you’ve got the women’s players, then you’ve got the Under-20s players, then you’ve got all the kids from the academy, then you’ve got the over-35s. You’ve got the disability group, you’ve got the walking football group. So there are quite a few!”

Like Samuel, Graham will be using Saturday’s game as a moment to reflect on how far Spartans have come. Promotion into the SPFL has undoubtedly played its part in gaining recognition, but the club finds itself in a difficult position. Growing a fanbase while sharing a city with clubs of Hearts and Hibs’ stature isn’t easy, but Graham is seeing Spartans move in the right direction and is confident that more is to come.

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“Whenever I’ve talked to the guys at the SFA and the SPFL, I think that Spartans has always been a highly-regarded club,” he said. “But because we were playing in the Lowland League, we were almost regarded as a well-run amateur club. What moving up a league does is show we can compete, and that our set-up, structure and players is as good as anybody in the league. Promotion has given us a fantastic platform and everything is up.

“What we play on is ‘North Edinburgh’. There are probably more Hibs fans than Hearts fans at the club because we’re closer to Easter Road than we are to Tynecastle, but there are 40,000 people within a two-mile radius of our ground. So there is actually a fairly local audience that potentially don’t go to games, or they are Hibs or Hearts fans who might come to our place when their team is away.

“It’s not easy. We are working in some schools and youth clubs and all the rest, and we are working hard. This year, our average league attendance is about 600, which is quite good. It was about 300 last year, so it’s doubled. We’re working hard at that but it will take time to build an atmosphere and a fanbase.

“We added a second stand that seats about 280 for the play-offs last year, so we have got about 780 seats – which means our average crowd can all get in undercover, which I think is a plus. Whether it’s companies or sponsors we’re seeking, or supporters, we are out and about in the local community and trying to entice them out.

“Saturday is a great occasion to reward our sponsors that have been with us for a long time, and also we have got a couple of new guys who are interested because we are playing Hearts, so you never know – we might entice them to come back. We have got absolutely nothing to lose against Hearts and we just want to make sure that all the players, fans, staff and volunteers have a fun day. It’s very much a free hit.”

Graham and Samuel are under no illusions about the scale of the task that awaits them. The odds aren’t all that much better than when King Leonidas and his 300 Spartan hoplites faced the million-strong Persian army at Thermopylae in one of history’s great last stands, and they will approach it with a similar sense of resolve. But with one crucial difference – this is no last stand. For The Spartans, a club on the rise, one suspects that this is merely the beginning.