FIRES in the stands, fireworks at training and fear of walking the streets if you lose. Having survived the psychotic Belgrade derby, new Hearts loanee Abiola Dauda won’t be fazed making his debut against Hibs tomorrow.
Edinburgh’s city rivalry, even in a high-octane Scottish Cup tie at a packed Tynecastle, will seem rather tame compared to Serbia. Playing for Red Star Belgrade against Partizan in front of 50,000 people, some of whom are starting fires to get the game stopped, needs a special kind of mental resilience.
Dauda certainly appears to have it, which is good news for Hearts supporters eagerly awaiting their first sight of their new striker tomorrow. The Nigerian spent what he considers an enjoyable year and a half at Red Star despite the hooliganism and volatility of Serbian “ultra” supporters. He moved on to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem in 2014 but recently fell to third-choice striker and opted for a loan move to rejuvenate himself.
Hearts have welcomed him with open arms as they prepare to lose the popular Osman Sow to Henan Jianye in a staggering £1million-plus transfer. Dauda will ultimately take his place but is a different type of player, with pace and movement his primary assets. Speed was certainly a useful attribute during those Belgrade derbies.
“The Red Star-Partizan derby is big,” he explained in his first media conference in Scotland. “I also played in the Vitesse-Nijmegen derby, but that’s not as big as Red Star against Partizan.
“In Belgrade, everything starts two weeks before the game. The fans always come to the training pitch with a lot of fireworks. They make us understand that this is a game for them so you just have to respect it. It got scary quite a few times.
“There was trouble in the stand, fans would destroy seats, and last time there was a fire and they had to stop the game. That was in the Red Star stadium, the Marakana. It was Partizan fans who started the fire.
“We won that game 1-0 and it was important for the title. If you lost against Partizan, I don’t think you could walk on the street for a few weeks.
“It’s more of a mental thing. You have a lot of games in the season and only two derbies, one at home and one away. This is a game for the fans. That’s the impression they give the players: ‘This is for us.’
“I didn’t have any problem playing in Belgrade. My time there was very good for football and socially but I’ve always wanted more so I thought to move on.
“I’m really happy I played there for that club and I enjoyed my time there. Against Partizan, the stadium was packed with 50,000 people. What more can you ask for?”
The inner strength to survive has always been there. Dauda left his homeland aged 18 in 2006 to join Solvesborgs in Sweden. His ambition to become a professional footballer and forge a lasting career in the game outweighed the negatives of uprooting himself and heading to a different continent.
He now carries a Swedish passport, negating the need for UK work permit. Leaving family behind in Nigeria forced him to learn how to look after himself and has taken him to some of Europe’s footballing hotbeds.
“That [leaving home] was difficult but it made me what I am today. There was the language, the weather, the people and food, of course. In the first year it was very difficult but after that it was better. It makes you tougher if you stay and get through it.”
He is now preparing for a different, dare we say more civilised, derby in the fifth round of the William Hill Scottish Cup tomorrow. Dauda signed a five-month loan agreement to join Hearts on Monday and could be pitched in from the start against Hibs tomorrow.
“It makes it a lot of fun. I didn’t know so much about this game but it’s a derby so there are a lot of nerves that will start to kick in,” he smiled.
“I don’t know too much about Scottish football. In Sweden, I used to follow Celtic because Henrik Larsson played there. I know about the Rangers-Celtic rivalry and I know about Hibs-Hearts. Aberdeen and Hearts are two of the top teams in Scotland.
“I wanted to come here for the opportunity to play and to find myself again after a difficult time in Vitesse. I didn’t get as many games as I wanted. I guess the manager just preferred other players. I also want to play for the Nigerian national team.
“The Hearts players have been talking about the derby with Hibs. Some of the people around the club have been talking about it. Basically, everyone has told me about it.”
Dauda isn’t a like-for-like replacement for Sow, although he is able to handle himself physically. At 28, he is considerably more experienced than the Swede and carries more of a pedigree.
Kalmar, Red Star and Vitesse all follow Solvesborgs on his impressive CV. On paper, he should be a standout figure in Scottish football over the next few months.
Hearts see him as someone who offers more mobility up front. Head coach Robbie Neilson explained that, in terms of pure technique, Dauda may well be a better player than Sow.
“Abiola is a wee bit different. He’s got great pace and his movement is probably better than Osman’s,” admitted Neilson.
“I think Osman was a bit of a talisman. He can make something out of nothing, he’s got a bit of magic to create something. Dauda is probably a better all-round footballer. Technically, when it comes to dealing with the ball, he’s probably better.
“His movement is better but that comes with experience. He’s played in the top flight in three different countries, with top clubs in those countries. I’m really pleased we managed to get him here.W