Replays of Alim Ozturk’s outrageous equaliser at Easter Road in October were screened during Hearts’ video analysis sessions at Riccarton this week.
The defender needed no reminding that he entered Edinburgh derby folklore with his stoppage-time 40-yarder, a goal remarkable for both the venom in the shot and the reaction it sparked.
Take the Hearts technical area as an example. The normally unflappable Robbie Neilson erupts in a fit of euphoria, almost choking the life out of kitman Gordon Paterson and sports scientist John Hill as he grabs them in a simultaneous headlock and screams with delight. The realisation that his ten-man team – having had Callum Paterson sent off – would not surrender their unbeaten league record to their biggest rivals caused Neilson to veer momentarily from his calm public persona.
Ozturk lashed a 30-yarder to secure three points against Raith Rovers in Hearts’ next match. The strike against Hibs remains more spectacular and more notorious since it secured a 1-1 draw in the dying seconds and preserved that unbeaten run.
More than 13,000 Hearts fans will yell for a repeat by Ozturk at every opportunity this weekend when the New Year derby takes place at Tynecastle. The Turk became an instant cult hero with the goal at Easter Road, joining the likes of Wayne Foster and Phil Stamp as players revered for their particular exploits down in Leith.
Ozturk knows what will come his way each time the ball lands at his feet on Saturday, no matter where he is on the pitch. “I know what’s gonna happen. ‘Shoot, shoot’, they will scream. If I get the chance I will try it. You never know, maybe I will score again. We’ll see,” he smiled.
“The derby is the most difficult game we play. The fans are very excited and it’s a nice game to play in. It’s special for me because I scored a wonderful goal last time. Maybe I will not do that ever again but I know what will happen when I get the ball on Saturday.
“Last time I got lots of messages after the match. Everybody was proud, they messaged me saying ‘what a goal’. Everybody I know got in touch on Facebook and with messages through my phone. The phone was so busy and then there was the fans as well. I know it’s a big game for the fans so, if you can score a goal like this, it’s perfect.”
Neilson is inclined to agree. He has spent all season playing down Hearts’ progress whilst they sit top of the league by a distance from Rangers and Hibs. That moment at Easter Road was probably the only time he lost control.
“We were going there on a good run of form and we hadn’t lost a game. Then it was looking difficult,” he recalled. “We went down to ten men and then we got the goal to give us a point. I think, when you look at the fans, I was the calmest person there and even I lost it a wee bit.
“It’s important we have passion. There is a calmness but you have to be passionate about the team. When the goal went in I was just thinking, ‘let’s get a point and get out of here’.”
He won’t be satisfied with simply getting out intact this time. Nor will his players. The Hearts squad were collectively disappointed with their performance in the last derby and want an improvement. They are also eager to increase their lead over their city rivals, which is currently 19 points, by beating a Hibs team which has undergone a renaissance of its own in recent weeks.
“Hibs are winning games but we are winning as well,” said Ozturk. “This is a different derby, it’s a game for the fans. We will keep going. There are 19 points between us and Hibs and we will try to keep that gap. Maybe it can be 22, maybe it will stay 19, but normally 19 points is a lot.
“The season is still going and we want our good work to continue. We want to win every game. It doesn’t matter what the score is. Before each game, we say to each other that it doesn’t matter if we win 1-0 or 5-0 here. The most important thing is to take three points.”
Asked if a Hearts win this weekend would kill off any remaining possibility of a title challenge from Hibs, Ozturk replied: “Yes I think so.”
Rangers remain the closest team to Hearts in the league table but even they are 15 points behind. To the professional pundit, the title is destined for Tynecastle. Neilson and his players refuse to get overly excited, though, and perhaps wisely so.
Last weekend, shortly after Hibs destroyed Rangers 4-0, Hearts ground out a narrow 1-0 win away at the Championship’s bottom club Livingston to stretch that lead to 15 points. More than 7000 Jambos were in attendance but their team could not match their early-season panache after an encouraging first half-hour.
It is days like that which are helping keep the Hearts players grounded. “Rangers lost against Hibs earlier in the afternoon so it was an important game for us to win at Livingston,” said Ozturk. “We knew if we won it was 15 points between us and Rangers, that was huge for us. We were 12 points clear so it was good to make it 15 by winning 1-0.
“We could have scored more goals because we had a penalty saved and then another big chance for Keats [James Keatings]. It could have been 3-0 in the first half and the game would have been finished but we could not do it. It made it a hard game.
“There was more work for the defenders in the second half and Livingston had a few chances in the last minutes but we were happy with the three points. Winning gives you confidence and now the gap is 15 points. Derbies are always different but we have confidence going into the Hibs game.”
Confidence that they can score from any area of the pitch stems from the fact 16 different Hearts players have scored for the club this season.
Yet one goal stands out above all others. Alim Ozturk surprised an entire stadium with his almighty blooter at Easter Road. A repeat this time would be unthinkable – but you just know he’s going to try it.