Alim Ozturk: Winning the cup is my Hearts desire

Alim Ozturk battled through the pain barrier as Hearts held off Aberdeen at Tynecastle
Alim Ozturk battled through the pain barrier as Hearts held off Aberdeen at Tynecastle
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ONE round down, four to go. Alim Ozturk’s masterplan to lift silverware in his first year as Hearts captain is one step nearer completion.

After eliminating Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup fourth round on Saturday, city rivals Hibs are next up in round five. Ozturk won’t relent until he gets Hearts to the final on May 21.

The Turkish centre-back is realistic enough to acknowledge that the cup is his best chance of a trophy, for this season at least. His club are still very much in a rebuilding phase after their financial collapse in 2013. While the recovery has been remarkable, they are not quite ready to challenge Celtic in the league. The Glasgow club knocked them out of the League Cup, thus making the Scottish Cup evermore coveted around Gorgie.

Pre-season discussions amongst the Hearts players centred around ambitions to win one of the two national cup tournaments. The gusto with which they tore into Aberdeen from kick-off on Saturday evening exemplified their hunger. Ozturk was playing just his second competitive match after three months out with a hernia injury and was relieved to get through.

With the first Scottish Cup hurdle successfully negotiated, he is eager to press ahead with plans for the next. Ultimately, he yearns to lead Hearts out of the Hampden Park tunnel come the final. Has done ever since that summer’s day back in July when head coach Robbie Neilson asked him to replace Danny Wilson as captain.

“Last year, we spoke to each other and the league was more important for us,” explained Ozturk in an exclusive Evening News interview.

“We all said that Hearts had to go back to the Premiership and we did that. This year, the cup is important for us as well. It doesn’t matter who we play against, you have to beat everybody to win it.

“We will go for the later stages and also for the final as well. Why not? We are going to try to win the cup. Of course, it is our best chance of a trophy. The gap between us and Celtic is too big in the league but we are doing really well. We are third. The cup is more realistic, yes.

“That was one of the things I was thinking about when I heard I was the new captain of the club. You guys asked me if I wanted to lift a trophy and I said, ‘of course’. It is one of my dreams. We did it last year with the title and I hope this year, as captain, I can lift the cup.”

A bustling first 45 minutes combined with a gritty second-half display was enough to see off Aberdeen – one of the Scottish Cup favourites. The win gives Hearts confidence that they can go all the way.

“The first half was really, really good. My opinion is that it was our best performance this year,” said Ozturk. “We tried to do the same in the second half as well but it did not happen. We had to fight in the second half and that was also good. The defence did really well and it was a very good team performance. I appreciated that.

“I think we controlled the first 45 minutes. Aberdeen had one or two chances in the second half but, if you look at the game over 90 minutes, then I think it was a really good performance. It’s always nice to get a clean sheet as well and I enjoyed that.

“We drew a lot of games recently so beating Aberdeen was really important. They beat us twice already this season – the last time was because of a penalty at the end. We were a little bit unlucky but that’s football. We believe in each other and we said to each other before the match that we were going through to the next round. We did that.”

An added bonus for the 23-year-old was completing another full match without pain. Two hernia surgeries since the end of last season had limited his appearances with the armband and left him a frustrated figure for much of the first half of the campaign. He is now clear of the injury and feeling no after-effects.

“I feel good. That was the second 90 minutes I have played after Dundee United a couple of weeks ago,” he smiled.

“I don’t feel anything and that is very important for me. I want to stay fit now. I have been training for almost two months with the rest of the group and I have played two first-team games. I also played four under-20 games before that so I feel really well and I know I can play.”

Ozturk did feel some pain towards the end of Saturday’s tie, although thankfully it was not hernia-related. Cramp took a vice-like grip of the defender’s calf in the final 15 minutes, culminating in him going down in stoppage-time. The Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes accused him of faking the injury to waste time as Hearts tried to see out a 1-0 win, but the player stressed his problem was genuine.

“It was about the 75th minute when I jumped for a header and I felt a little bit in my calf. I knew it was cramp. I was like, ‘can I play the 90?’ I didn’t say anything to the gaffer. In the last minute, I felt it a little bit again and I knew I needed some help then.”

After a short respite, he recovered to see out the match and take a giant step nearer that highly-sought-after place in the Scottish Cup final.