SUSO SANTANA admits that the last few weeks have perhaps not gone to plan for Hearts but, for the little Spaniard at least, things are starting to look up.
The 27-year-old has struggled to pin down a place in the first team at Tynecastle this season since suffering with a knee problem at the tail end of the last campaign, an injury which required surgery. His recovery period from that operation was already expected to be lengthy but was extended further when he returned to training only to suffer a hamstring strain.
Then when he finally managed to get back to full fitness, the winger struggled to find favour under new manager Paulo Sergio.
All of those factors conspired to ensure he played little more than a bit-part role for the Jambos this season. However, he has worked tirelessly in training to convince Sergio of his worth and was given his chance when he played the full 90 minutes of the league games against Dundee United and Motherwell.
Suso has the bit between his teeth now and is determined to make the most of the opportunity that has come his way in recent games.
The Spaniard is out of contract at the end of this month and admits he’d like to stay at the club. For now, though, it is his intention to win a starting place for Hearts’ final two league games of the season and – of course – the small matter of a William Hill Scottish Cup Final against Hibs on May 19.
The player said: “For me, it is better that I stay here but it is the decision of the club. I finish my contract later this month.
“At the moment, my wife and my daughter are in Spain so it is very difficult but, if I stay, I hope they will come over here.
“The last few weeks have been much better for me because I have played some football. In the last six or seven months before that I didn’t manage to play at all really so things are good at the moment.
“I played 90 minutes in the last two games and I feel very good. My body is perfect and my knee feels perfect. Obviously, I was tired at the end of these games but that is only natural and it is good to have come through them with no reaction.”
Having found it difficult to win over Sergio, Suso is relieved to finally be back in with a chance of playing regular football again. He had to convince the manager to give him a shot in the first team and did so simply by keeping his head down in training and running himself into the ground to prove not only his desire, but his fitness.
He has also proved his point in the substitute appearances he has made – in particular the three minutes he played against Hibs last month that saw him bag the second goal in a resounding victory.
He said: “I think the manager now has confidence in me. I think that he has been pleased with the way I have responded and now, hopefully, I am going to get my chance.”
While the battle back to fitness and into the team has been a challenging one physically, Suso admits he also had to stay strong mentally to get through periods of training on his own in a bid to get back on the road to recovery. He continued: “Mentally, I think I have been good. It was a long time that I was out of the side injured but I think I dealt with it well.
“As a footballer, you have to expect you will be injured some time and, if you are out for a long time, you just have to handle it and work hard to get yourself back into the team.
“It is hard at the time but now I am fit again and playing for the team. I am very happy and it has all been worth it.”
Now he is back in the side, Suso is determined not to allow himself to slip back out of the reckoning and is keen to be involved in each of the three remaining matches, against St Johnstone on Sunday, away to Celtic on the final day of the SPL campaign and, finally, against Hibs at Hampden.
With two full games under his belt, he added: “For every footballer you want to play as much as possible and I want to be involved in every game.
“The manager did not speak to me when I was out. I just trained well and worked hard. If the manager wants to play someone then he picks them and I am glad he has picked me again and I think that he believes in me now. I hope I have done enough to stay in the side now and I hope that I can play against St Johnstone at the weekend. I have trained hard again this week and that is all I can do for now.” St Johnstone have been one of the surprise packages of the season under Steve Lomas, the Irishman steering them into a place in the top half of the table and a battle with Hearts for a Europa League place.
Saints have already recorded three victories over Hearts in the league this season and Suso admitted: “They are a dangerous side. I think our results have maybe not been the best but I thought that we played well in the second half against Rangers and then we were better again in the game with Dundee United.”
• SUSO SANTANA was speaking exclusively to the Evening News at the launch of an Aegon Breakfast Club initiative at Canal View Primary in Wester Hailes.The breakfast club is being funded for three years by the construction company Wates Scotland and is part of an ongoing partnership between Big Hearts, the City of Edinburgh Council and Aegon UK.