TWO years into a three-year Hearts contract, Mehdi Taouil has so far flattered to deceive. Undoubtedly one of the most naturally talented players to grace the Scottish Premier League, he has failed to establish himself as a regular at Tynecastle.
Mercurial is probably the best adjective to apply to the flamboyant, but frustrating midfielder.
Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown signed Taouil for Hearts in June 2011, having managed him for three years at Kilmarnock. They knew better than anyone his capabilities – the technique, the tricks, the flicks, the passing range and the creativity which brought him cult hero status at Rugby Park. It is a genuine regret for Hearts fans that the skills Taouil honed on the streets of the Parisian suburb Villeneuve-Saint-Georges as a kid have been displayed only occasionally in Edinburgh.
He is currently on the substitutes’ bench having been hauled off by manager Gary Locke for a disappointing first-half display against Ross County recently. That story reflects much of Taouil’s Hearts career so far.
Locke’s presence offers some hope that the player, now 29, could realise his unfulfilled potential next season. Both got on famously as team-mates at Kilmarnock, although much will depend on who Locke recruits during the summer after the SPL confirmed Hearts’ signing restrictions are to be lifted.
There is no denying Taouil’s quality – he is a Moroccan internationalist through parentage – but the feeling persists that he has yet to properly apply himself in a maroon shirt. That notion is shared by Brown.
“He doesn’t get enough praise and yet he does sometimes flatter to deceive. I think that’s an apt description of him,” said Brown, now managing Second Division East Fife. “We brought Mehdi over from France and he settled in at Kilmarnock straight away. It was the same when he came to Hearts. He could be a bigger influence. I think if he got a run in his best position and got a couple of goals, he could become a key player for Hearts. I certainly hope that happens.”
So why hasn’t Taouil sparked into life at Tynecastle? Two goals in 63 competitive appearances is his return, although positioning may be partly responsible. He has operated in central midfield mostly for Hearts with the occasional stint out wide. Brown is convinced his best role is the traditional No. 10 position in between midfield and attack.
“I don’t think the fans have seen the best of him and that was always one of our conundrums at Kilmarnock,” he continued. “We had to decide where his best position was. We played him wide a lot and gave him a free role, but probably he’s best in behind the strikers. He can play nice balls into attacking positions from there.
“We always had to encourage him to shoot more because he can strike the ball well. His goal tally for the ability he’s got isn’t really good enough. He should be scoring more goals. If he played regularly in a forward position, he would score more. He just needs a bit of encouragement. He’s the type of player who can influence games because he’s got the skill to make a difference.
“I would say he’s a typical No. 10. A lot of players with the skill Mehdi’s got hold onto the ball too long but he is a team player. He will give you something in terms of work rate and he’s a good trainer. If the young boys at Hearts listen to him, they’ll benefit from him.”
Locke and Taouil’s relationship was cemented years ago on the M8 travelling back and forth to Kilmarnock training sessions in Glasgow together. “They used to travel in the same car and they always had a bit of banter,” explained Brown. “Mehdi used to get fed up with Lockie playing the Hearts songs in the car and used to take the mickey out of him about it. They’re both very similar – good lads who are right behind the cause. Things have changed a bit with Gary now managing Hearts, but it won’t change his personality. I would like to think Mehdi will flourish under Gary. When we spoke about it before, we always thought playing Mehdi in behind the striker was his best position. Either that our out wide with a bit of a free role, not tied to the touchline. Gary was of the same mind as I was. Now he’s in charge of the team he might see things differently, but I would think that’s where Gary sees Mehdi’s best position.
“What I will say is that Mehdi Taouil is a really good player and a good influence about the place. He plays for the team, not as an individual. When we signed him for Hearts, we knew the club was getting a decent player. When we signed him at Kilmarnock, it was the same. I think he could be one of the major influences at Tynecastle next season.
“He’s up for all the nonsense in the dressing-room, but he’s one of the nicer ones in football. He’s a friendly person and there’s no ego there.”