ALIM OZTURK, not fully fit right now and having been eased into Scottish football in the Championship last season, admits his Premiership debut on Sunday was something of a baptism of fire.
Hearts’ captain was part of a new-look defence that was subjected to a stern examination from an energetic St Johnstone side, who launched countless high balls into the danger area. Ozturk and his sidekicks, Callum Paterson, Blazej Augustyn and Igor Rossi, stood up manfully to the bombardment but still ended up conceding three goals in a frenetic and hard-fought 4-3 victory. To put the goals against into context, it was a quarter of the total amount Hearts conceded in all 18 home matches in the second tier last term.
“There are many of us here who are having to adapt to a new league and Sunday showed that it’s going to be a step up to what we were used to in the Championship,” Ozturk, one of five starters who had never played in the Scottish Premiership before, told the Evening News. “It was amazing, though, a lot of goals. It was a real Scottish game on Sunday because they put so many balls into the box.
“People told me before about the Scottish Premiership, but it was certainly tough. There were so many long balls into the box to deal with. That was more defending than I had to do in any of the Championship games. It was unbelievable. Every ball they put it into the box or tried to flick in behind, so it was very hard, but we got there in the end. I would have settled for that result before the game.”
There were similarities to the opening day of last season – against Rangers at Ibrox – as Hearts recovered from the concession of a late equaliser to start with a victory.
“It is always better to keep a clean sheet but, if you are 3-1 up and the other team comes back to 3-3, it is a big boost mentally if you are able to go on and win 4-3,” said Ozturk. “I am proud that the boys were able to do that. We did really well to win it. Last year, it was similar when we won 2-1 at Ibrox in the first game after losing a late equaliser, and we kicked on after that. It was really important to start with three points. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you get three points. Even when we lost the equaliser I still believed we could win the game. We still had ten minutes to play and we always trust and believe in each other that we can win games. We showed what we’re capable of, as a couple of minutes later it was 4-3 and we held on to win the game.”
Aside from the step up in opposition, Ozturk found the second half particularly difficult as a disrupted pre-season started to take its toll. The 22-year-old Turk underwent stomach surgery at the end of last season and hasn’t been able to train or play as much as he would have liked this summer.
“I was struggling at the end because I’ve not had a normal pre-season,” he explained. “Because of my surgery I wasn’t able to train a lot in the summer. I’m not fit yet but I’m almost there.” Hearts conceded three in only one league game last season – the defeat to Falkirk in January – but Ozturk felt he and his fellow defenders did well on Sunday, given the circumstances.
“It was hard for us at the back,” he explained. “It was the first time we had played together but I think we did well. We won a lot of headers and stuff like that. Blazej and me were okay together but we will definitely get better as a partnership. We all speak English so there is no language barrier between us. It’s never good to lose three goals but I think everybody in the back four was good. I am not 100 per cent fit, Blazej had some problems with his fitness last week and Igor is just new here. It was only the first day of the season, so we will get better.”
The same could be said for most departments of the team, with several other players who started on Sunday still to get up to full fitness. Prince Buaben was singled out for particular praise by head coach Robbie Neilson for lasting the full 90 minutes against Saints in what was his first game since the pre-season friendly against Bohemians four-and-a-half weeks previously. Morgaro Gomis and Juanma were others pitched in despite interrupted pre-season campaigns. With Miguel Pallardo, still recovering from an Achilles problem and the much-hyped new recruit Juwon Oshaniwa waiting to be added to the mix, Ozturk believes Hearts will only get stronger as summer becomes autumn.
“Half the team are not fit yet,” he said. “Buaben, Gomis and Juanma haven’t had a pre-season so it was very hard for us all on Sunday. We did really well considering all that and we will be better after a few weeks. We still have Pallardo and Juwon to come into the team so it’s looking good. We have a really good squad.” As recently-appointed skipper, Ozturk took particular satisfaction from Sunday’s victory. “I am proud to have won my first league game as captain,” he said. “It was a good start. We spoke before the game about needing to get the points and we worked really, really hard to get them. It’s always hard in your first game of the season but you are always going to get better after that once you get more games under your belt as a team.”
Hearts’ resolve will be tested again when they visit a Dundee side buoyant after their opening-day blitzing of Kilmarnock at Rugby Park. “I saw that Dundee won 4-0 at the weekend,” said Ozturk. “It was a really good result for them and they clearly have a good team so we will need to be at our best to beat them.”