EIGHTEEN long years have passed since Manchester United alumnus Erik Nevland rippled Gordon Marshall's net in the scenic Norwegian port town of Stavanger.

Little did Kilmarnock know that their 3-1 aggregate defeat to Viking would begin a European exile which is now nearing two decades.

However, the prospect of a maiden continental campaign since Craig Dargo, Andy McLaren and Alan Mahood were strutting their stuff in blue and white stripes now looms large.

It is a tantalising notion that has gripped the Killie fanbase - but within the walls of Rugby Park, the laser focus on the next challenge persists.

Steve Clarke, evidently, is not a man who will let his squad lose the run of themselves.

"Playing in Europe is something every player wants to do," said Kilmarnock defender Stuart Findlay. "To take part in those sorts of big matches.

"But the way the gaffer treats it is clever, just telling us to look at the points total. If you do that, you only look at the table at the end of the season – and it will speak for itself.

"When you start to look too far ahead, it can be distracting."

Even if Findlay is reluctant to cast a glance at the league table, it makes happy reading for the Killie faithful.

They now sit in third spot - ahead of Aberdeen on goal difference - as they chase guaranteed European football. Should Celtic complete the treble Treble on May 25, fourth place will also be dusting off their passports.

It is a fairytale rise for a club who were in the doldrums when GMB manager of the year nominee Clarke took the reins 18 months ago - and the belief coursing through the place is reflected by Findlay.

"People think we’ve been punching above our weight this season," he continued. "But we don’t look at it that way.

"We know that the squad we’ve got is good enough – and we’ve all got believe in each other.

"Look at the three we had in midfield on Saturday, Youssouf [Mulumbu], Gary [Dicker] and Alan [Power]. You are not going to get a better three in the middle.

"So you can talk about the budget. But we’ve got belief in the ability we have as players. We can mix it with any team in the league."

It was Findlay's fourth goal of the season that assured Kilmarnock a pivotal three points at Tynecastle, smashing home a clinical drive from 12 yards with four minutes left on the clock.

It was richly-merited on the balance of chances, given Killie had struck the post through Eamonn Brophy, seen Alex Bruce head over the bar from point-blank range and found Jambos keeper Zdenek Zlamal in fine fettle.

"I just shut my eyes and hit it!" Laughed Findlay. "Thankfully, it went into the corner.

"I would have been disappointed if I’d choked at that chance - a really good chance to win the game."

Findlay's rasper condemned Hearts to a fourth defeat in five Premiership outings, but dejected skipper Christophe Berra has denied their malaise has anything to do with attention drifting towards the Scottish Cup final.

"I don't think that's the case," he said. "When you're playing the game you're not thinking about the final. You can't take your foot off the pedal.

"There will be days when you're not fully at it, you might not be playing your best and making mistakes, but it's not down to not trying.

"I think I speak for the boys: when you cross that white line you're doing it for yourself, the fans, your family, everyone."