Nights like Thursday inside PAOK’s Toumba Stadium are character-building in several ways. Alex Cochrane, the Hearts defender, suffered with everyone else in maroon as the Greeks executed a convincing 4-0 victory to eliminate their opponents from European competition. There are lessons to learn and responsibilities to shoulder. Cochrane doesn’t shirk from either.
He admitted to blame for PAOK’s third goal on the night, scored by the 20-year-old attacking midfielder Ioannis Konstantelias. Cochrane was shunted into a midfield role by that point and did not track his opponent’s run into the penalty area. He paid a heavy price when Konstantelias tapped the ball past Hearts goalkeeper Zander Clark at the second attempt.
“Those nights do make you a better player. I learned a lot on Thursday,” said the 23-year-old Englishman. “I take responsibility for the third goal, for not tracking my man. Those are the things I need to get out of my game so I will learn. Playing in a stadium like that, with that atmosphere, was a tough test. I will take positive bits from it but there is also a lot to learn. It’s the basics of football, tracking the man, and I let him go. I take responsibility for that.
“I think it’s just the basics. If you make a mistake at that level, you get punished. Those are the things we need to iron out of our game. If we do that, then we know we are a team that will create chances. We created chances on Thursday and in the home leg. On another day, we take them and it’s a different story. We learn from it and we move on.
“The boys knew it would be a hostile atmosphere and I thought we coped with it. The crowd didn’t really bother us. We could have played a bit more but we know the mistakes we made, so we just have to get going again in the league.”
One collective error was conceding an early goal given PAOK were already 2-1 ahead from the first leg at Tynecastle Park. “We had a gameplan beforehand to frustrate them and try to keep the crowd quiet,” explained Cochrane. “Conceding the goal early and then losing another one soon afterwards was a killer for us. It was an uphill battle from there. I think we all know that it was poor defending at all four goals. We should have done better.
“We need to go again against Motherwell on Sunday because we want to be back playing these games in the group stages next year. We know we need to get good results in the league. That starts against Motherwell. Finishing third and playing European football is massive for this club. We know what we need to do.”
Finishing fourth instead of third last season left Hearts facing two qualifying rounds to reach the Conference League groups. After beating Rosenborg, PAOK was a task too far. “We knew that last season. We knew we had a bad run and the conversation now is that we need to get third place,” said Cochrane. “We want to be playing European football because Hearts should be a club that is doing that every year. We know it’s going to be tough but we go into this weekend wanting a good result.”