Hearts striker Liam Boyce is ready to face up to PAOK Salonika’s famous ultras in the Toumba Stadium, insisting their abuse will provide motivation in the Europa Conference League play-off. The Edinburgh club trail 2-1 from the first leg in Edinburgh and need to win in Thessaloniki to reach the group stage.
PAOK’s fanatical support are known to for an aggressive approach to visiting teams, but Boyce stressed he will be spurred on by the volatile atmosphere. “That's what you want to see and experience. I love when fans shout abuse at you,” said the Northern Irishman. “If you do something good against them, you can hear them silenced very quickly. I've seen videos and obviously they are crazy here with flares and stuff. It's a good experience and you will find out more about yourself in situations like that than in empty stadiums.”
Boyce’s last European goal was more than 10 years ago and, having missed out on Hearts’ adventure in last season’s Conference League groups through injury, he is desperate to take part this time. “My last goal in Europe was for Cliftonville. That's the ones you remember, especially Cliftonville who were a part-time team. You are going and winning against top European teams.
“If I score and it wins the game for us then I will be really happy, but I don't care as long as we win. That's all that matters. If it's me setting up the goal, or stopping them scoring in the last minute, I will do whatever it takes.
“We need to win the game but we can't be naive. We can't go 100 miles an hour like a basketball game because there's only one team who will be suited to that. We have to be smart. The Rosenborg second leg helped us. We went 1-0 down but we stayed calm and hopefully we learn from that experience. We need to keep calm heads.”
Head coach Frankie McAvoy explained that the Hearts management team have prepared the squad for PAOK’s bigger playing surface and temperatures likely to be near 30 degrees at kick-off on Thursday. “The pitch is bigger and it will be a lot warmer here than back home. Our training has taken that into account,” said McAvoy.
“We have to understand that you don't win a game in the first minute. It might take a full 90. We face a really tough opponent who showed what a good team they were at Tynecastle. I didn't think there was a lot in the game and I don't think the tie is dead and finished. Sometimes the underdog wins.
“The Conference League group stages lies ahead for the players. If they win this game, we are there. We are 90 minutes, 120 minutes and maybe penalties away from achieving that. It might be one of the best results in Hearts' European history.
“We need to remember there are 11 players stopping us trying to achieve what we want and be respectful of that. The players are as motivated as they can be. We had a bad day at the weekend. That is out the system. We just need to make sure we give everything we can and, when the big moments arrive, we take them. I think that will be the deciding factor.”