Happy at Hearts and in talks to extend his contract, Andraz Struna is satisfied he made the correct decision coming to Scotland in January. He has even begun researching the country’s history with trips to Bannockburn, Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle.
Tynecastle officials are more concerned with the future and remain hopeful of keeping the Slovenian international defender next season. His six-month agreement expires at the end of May and discussions are currently ongoing about an extension – as exclusively revealed by the Evening News last month.
Struna is open to the prospect of a longer stay, knowing he would be first-choice right-back if he put pen to paper. Callum Paterson will leave Hearts when he recovers from mediate and cruciate knee ligament injuries later this year. That leaves a void on the right side of defence. Struna, aged 28 and with 25 international caps, is the obvious choice ahead of the very capable but still prospering Liam Smith, who has just turned 21.
“For now, we are having some talks and we will see what happens,” Struna told the Evening News. “Everything is open and when it’s time we will make a decision. At the moment, it’s just talks. We are focusing on the games over the next few weeks because these are very important for the club.
“I am happy with everything here. I enjoy this time. Of course, some things can always be better but I am enjoying my time here in Scotland. I have seen the main attractions where all the tourists go, like Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile. Most of all, I like the story of Stirling Castle and the battlefield there, about William Wallace and Robert The Bruce. I like history like that. I like life here and I like playing for Hearts. I don’t think too much about the future because we are focusing on the next few weeks, which are very important.”
Hearts are striving to qualify for Europe and may tempt Struna into agreeing a deal if they can offer the carrot of a Europa League qualifying campaign.
They face Partick Thistle tomorrow in the first of five post-split matches in the Ladbrokes Premiership which will define their season. Sitting fifth, they must close the four-point gap between themselves and St Johnstone in fourth to achieve a European place. It is a case of déjà vu for Struna. He was in the same position exactly 12 months ago in Greece with PAS Giannina.
“Last season, when I played in Greece, we were battling for the chance to be in the qualifying rounds for the Europa League. We made it on the last day. Until then, we had to fight and then we got a place in the qualification rounds. Unfortunately they went out to AZ Alkmaar in the third qualifying round.
“It’s a great motivation for every player to try to achieve this. It’s good to fight for big success like this in football. The target for us is to win the next game and to take as many points as we can. We will see where this takes us. We always hope for the best.”
Playing out of position at left-back in the last two games, the Slovenian has contributed to a Hearts defence which has kept consecutive clean sheets. “It is very positive that we did not concede a goal. This also gives us a little bit more confidence,” he said.
“Generally, it’s the same rules on the left, just completely opposite movement. I played left-back a lot of times before so I’m quite familiar with that position. It’s the same position, you just have to use the opposite leg and opposite movements. Otherwise it’s the same. I don’t know if I will play there this week. This question is still open.”
Indeed, the Hearts head coach Ian Cathro must decide whether to keep faith with Struna at left-back and Smith at right-back or reinstate a more natural left-back, Lennard Sowah, who is free of injury. Aaron Hughes remains sidelined by a persistent calf problem, so Prince Buaben and Krystian Nowak will continue in central defence.
“Lennard is back with us and is available,” explained Cathro. “Prince is fine and available. Aaron is the only one who is still building himself up and not available for selection as yet.
“I think Prince and Krystian have adapted quite well to their roles and what we’ve wanted them to do. I also think Liam has done well. He’s played with good character and some confidence. I can see some growth in him. We’ll look at the game and make the decision based on what we think puts us on top.”
Cathro went on to explain the extended absence of 37-year-old Hughes. It is now more than two months since he last played. “He’s better. This week is not going to work either but maybe we can look at the following week,” said Cathro.
“It’s been a frsutrating one, for Aaron and for us. It’s just one of those injuries where you get a couple of setbsacks, not necessarily from anything he is doing or because of his body – it’s just in a bit of an awkward place so it’s been a frustrating situation for everybody.
“He is really important to the gameplan and what we’ve been trying to do here. The player he is and the man he is, he transmits a comfort to the players.
“He’s one of the guys who came here to be a bit of a message-carrier for me. He was a very important signing, and he will be because we’ll have him back soon.
“Obviously, there’s not a long time left but we are pretty much certain we’ll have him back in the team before the end of the season. We just need to make sure that we get it right.
“It has proved to be more frustrating and complicated than we’d have liked but it’s more important that when he comes back he is 100 per cent right.
“I would certainly rather he was in the team. He’s one of the older players that we have and it’s important that we have those characters – and maybe bring some more to make sure that we have the right strength, experience and leadership for the group. But I would put the focus back on the fact he’s a good player first and foremost.”