Fit-again Alim Ozturk hopes Hearts fans don’t judge him on his early-season form because he was playing through excruciating pain.
The captain had to undergo hernia surgery in October after it emerged that an operation in May hadn’t got to the bottom of abdominal discomfort which had been plaguing him since February. Although he was able to play in the opening months of the current campaign, the centre-back admits he was never at his best as the discomfort returned before he had got himself fully match fit.
After toiling through the September defeat at home to Aberdeen and the League Cup win at Kilmarnock, the 23-year-old Turk finally admitted defeat in his bid to soldier on through the pain barrier. “I was lying to myself earlier in the season,” Ozturk said. “The pain definitely affected me. In the first few weeks I didn’t feel anything and I thought I would be fine but after four or five weeks, the pain started to come back in the same area [as it had been prior to the May operation]. At first I wasn’t too worried because the medical people said this might happen after an operation, but the pain kept getting worse week after week and I started to think ‘this is not good’.
“I tried to train without painkillers for a while but whenever I had to sprint I felt too much pressure. It was like a knife going into my stomach. The Aberdeen home game and Kilmarnock away in the League Cup were when it was at its worst. I trained again after the cup game but it was so painful. The gaffer could see I was in a lot of pain so we spoke and I went to see a specialist in England. I told the doctor what the problem was and he said it was a hernia. They operated on me there and then.”
Ozturk revealed that the most recent operation picked up issues that hadn’t been detected when he underwent his first surgery in May. “I’d been struggling with this since February but last season I wanted to keep playing to help the team win the league and I played a lot with painkillers and injections,” he explained. “In the first operation, they just cut the muscle and said that it wasn’t a hernia. But then I discovered it was a hernia and when they operated again in October, the surgeon told me afterwards that it wasn’t just a hernia, but they had found tears in my groin as well, so that is why I was in so much pain.”
Having just been appointed captain in July, Ozturk felt a duty to his team to make himself available when several of his colleagues were struggling fitness-wise at the start of the season. “I felt I had to keep playing because Blazej [Augustyn] had an injury and a few other guys in defence and midfield had some problems,” he said. “I knew myself ‘I have to stop playing now’ but I wanted to keep playing for the team. I felt like I had to do it for the team but in hindsight it was stupid because it ended up killing my whole body. I definitely wasn’t myself at the start of the season, but it has been a good lesson for me. It was hard mentally because I’d never had to come back from surgery before and you’re always worrying about whether it’s okay or not.”
Ozturk, who hasn’t featured for two and a half months, has taken his recovery slower this time round in order to ensure he gets back to his pre-February fitness and form levels. “After the most recent operation, I had to make the choice not to come back too soon because I didn’t want to come back and struggle again,” he explained. “I spoke with the club and they told me to take my time. I did most of my recovery in Holland, which was good because I had my family and friends around me when I came home. I’ve been doing a lot of extra things to make sure I’m stronger, so I hope I’m fixed now. I feel better now and I feel ready to be in the squad. I played 70 minutes for the under-20s on Tuesday and I felt just a little bit stiff sometimes, but it was okay – it wasn’t like the pain I had before.”
Ozturk knows he now faces a battle to dislodge Blazej Augustyn and Igor Rossi, who have emerged as a steady defensive pairing in his absence. “I now have to battle to get back into the team because Igor and Blazej have been doing well,” he said. “That’s football, though. I believe in myself and have confidence in myself. If I’m fully fit I will be a better player than I was at the start of the season.”
Ozturk hopes to be on the bench at Pittodrie tomorrow as Hearts look to avenge their 3-1 defeat by Aberdeen in September. The second-place Dons are four points ahead of the Tynecastle side, who have a game in hand. “It’s a really big game for us,” said Ozturk. “Aberdeen were really good on the counter-attack at Tynecastle. They had three really good moments in the first half which made us look really bad. But I think we played the second half much better. They are a good team but I think we will definitely give them a better game this time.”