HAPPINESS is a place in the Hearts team and a cordial relationship with the manager. Andy Driver isn’t quite ready to break out the Hamlet cigars with Paulo Sergio but the pair have resolved their differences and discovered some mutual respect since falling out in December and Driver is decidedly relieved.
The winger is preoccupied with reproducing top form following two-and-a-half years of relentless injury problems. Issues with the manager he can well do without. Having told Sergio he wanted to leave Hearts late last year, he had second thoughts and stopped short of putting the transfer request in writing.
Events which conspired to unsettle Driver two months ago have largely been resolved. Wages are being paid and he is appearing regularly again at first-team level. The result is a much more contented player whom the manager is willing to trust again, even if Driver himself admits he is not yet back to his rampaging best.
Key to recovering his relationship with Sergio was a change in attitude. Driver concedes he had to improve his approach and convince the Portuguese coach that he merited a first-team place. Sergio, to his credit, has responded by handing the 24-year-old regular game time since the turn of the year.
“It kind of came to a head when we had the fallout before January,” Driver told the Evening News. “I think it was a lot to do with the way the club was going at that time as well. Now things have settled down. The manager and I have had a few conversations and I think our relationship has taken a turn for the better.
“I’ve got no complaints now. I hope he can see from the way I’m training that my attitude is a lot better as well. I’m getting chances in the team, maybe that’s due to the fact I’m working hard and I’m starting to get a bit fitter. I’ve no problems with him in that respect.
“Officially, the transfer request was never handed in. It was in my thoughts and we had a meeting about it but we never officially went ahead with it. It was a frustrating time for me, as it was for a lot of people. I wasn’t playing, there are no reserve games to play in when you’re injured and we weren’t getting paid. I just didn’t see any light.
“You go on impulse, don’t you? That was what I felt at the time but I’ve come out of that now. It wasn’t the right way to go about it but you don’t think about things like that till afterwards. Now I’ve had time to think about it and I realise I just need to get back playing. I’ve got to improve the way I’ve been playing and kick on before the end of the season.”
The lack of form is causing Driver slight consternation, which becomes obvious when he is asked how far he is from optimum performance.
“It’s frustrating for me and it’s hard to cope with. When you’re not at full fitness, you aren’t going at 100 per cent capacity. As time goes on I’m edging a little bit more towards that. At least I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Some fans have taken to criticising a player who, not all that long ago, was something of a Tynecastle idol. A poor touch or misplaced pass prompts groans and occasional abuse from the stands, exacerbated by Driver being substituted at half-time twice in his last three starts for Hearts. However, he is determined not to be distracted from his quest to become “the old Andy Driver” once again.
“Coming off at half-time is frustrating and if I was playing brilliantly then I’d be complaining. As things have gone, I haven’t done that,” he said.
“Being criticised is part and parcel of football. You get all the praise when you’re playing well, so you can’t complain when you don’t get any. I just keep my head down and try to block it all out. I’ll keep giving 100 per cent and I hope no-one would say I don’t give my all. If you work hard enough you’ll get a break and that’s what I need at the moment.”
In his defence, only three times has he has completed 90 minutes this season. Before that, his last full match was March 2010. It is no surprise he is not yet at his sharpest. Driver is currently working overtime to accelerate his return to top form.
“I’ve started doing things like yoga and I go sprint training once a week in the afternoons. Little things like that help. The yoga helps my fitness and the sprint training has helped me improve on things. When you’re not playing, you lose a yard of pace. I’m back out trying to get that back.”
This weekend he is a strong contender to start at Ibrox as Hearts visit Rangers. David Templeton is injured and Mehdi Taouil, Rudi Skacel and David Obua all flattered to deceive in last week’s defeat by Dundee United. The door could be open for Driver to make an impression in Glasgow. “Temps will be back in a few weeks hopefully but, if I get the chance, I can hopefully cement my place back in the team. In football, you have to take opportunities like that,” he said.
For a player who remains contracted to Hearts until June 2013, it is not a life-or-death situation. He is content to gradually impose himself on the field after mending his relationship with Sergio and overcoming his injury problems. Initial talks to extend his stay took place last year but, for the moment, he is more than happy with his lot.
“I don’t think the club’s in a position to renegotiate anyway. I still have 18 months left on my contract so, if there were going to be any more talks, they would probably be at the end of the season. I don’t think it would be an option to move away during the last year of my deal. I’ve just got to concentrate on doing my best for Hearts and hopefully start paying people back for the time I’ve missed. I need to play well, both for the club and for the sake of my career.”