Arnaud Djoum will spend his upcoming family holiday in Dubai basking in the afterglow of his finest season in football. The previously unheralded Belgian midfielder has exceeded all expectations since arriving at Hearts last autumn and signs off his debut campaign in Scotland having established himself as his team’s talismanic figure.
After initially joining on a short-term deal until January, Hearts’ management wasted no time in tying down the 27-year-old on a new deal until summer 2017 when it swiftly became apparent that they had unearthed an untapped gem. If the club feel they have won a watch since recruiting Djoum, so too does the player himself as he reflects on a campaign in which the stars seem to have aligned perfectly for him in Gorgie following an unfulfilling 2014/15 season spent in both Turkey and Poland.
“Everything has been almost perfect for me since I came here,” Djoum told the Evening News at the end of a season in which he played a major part in Hearts securing an emphatic third-place finish in the Premiership. “I’ve really enjoyed my first season here. I came late to the team and I didn’t know a lot about of Scottish football, but I feel like I had a great season. It’s gone better than I could have imagined because I didn’t expect things to happen so fast for me. This is definitely the best season I’ve had as a footballer and I’m very happy I had it here because all the people have been so good to me.
“I was really surprised how the fans liked me when I played and how good my team-mates were with me. I’m really happy to have come to this club and I have to enjoy this moment.”
Djoum puts his rapid progress at Hearts down to finding a harmonious environment. “The confidence I get from everybody at Hearts has been a big factor in why I have done so well,” he said. “When I was in Poland I didn’t get so much confidence from the people. If I played one game that wasn’t so good, I’d be straight out the team. I felt I had a far better chance to have a good season here because the fans, the players and the gaffer give me a lot of confidence.”
Djoum’s consistent form, which helped bring him seven goals, was recognised when he landed the Hearts supporters’ Player of the Year award last month. In a wider context, he is also now regarded as one of the most dominant midfield players in Scotland. “The player of the year award meant a lot, especially because it came from the fans,” he said. “It is the first personal prize I have won. I thank my family, the fans, the club, my team-mates and the gaffer for that. I was really happy to get the award.
“I’m not the type of person to say, ‘I am the best’ or anything like that. I try to do my best and if I can help the team win games, that is good enough for me. If people think I am one of the stronger midfielders in the league, I am very happy about that because it means I am doing my job well.”
Having made such a positive impression at Tynecastle thus far, Djoum knows his next task is to prove he is no one-season wonder. He is confident that enough factors are in his favour to ensure he continues to go from strength to strength.
“In football things can go down just as quickly as they go up, so you must try to keep the level up and be stable,” he noted. “I now have experience of Scottish football and how all the teams play so I should be even better next season. I’ve learnt a lot here. I hadn’t had much of this style of football before, with all the physicality, so I feel like I am a more complete player now. It will help me having a full pre-season next season because I didn’t have that last year. I was speaking with the gaffer about this recently. Physically I should be better next season so I am excited about this.”
With Djoum’s stock at an all-time high, there lingers the threat of more illustrious clubs attempting to prise him away from Tynecastle. The former Anderlecht youngster is adamant that he wants to remain in Gorgie and experience European football for the first time in his career. Having seen his big move to Lech Poznan turn sour, he knows the value of finding contentment on and off the pitch.
“I have one more year on my contract here and next season I will play in the Europa League for the first team in my career,” he said. “I want to stay here. I need stability in my career because I changed clubs too much recently and I feel I have that stability here. I feel good here. You never know in football, but I definitely want to stay here.
“I’ve not had any negotiations about extending my contract. I spoke briefly with the gaffer and maybe this is something that will happen in the future. I don’t want to think too much about the future though. I just want to think about what is happening now. I’m excited about next season, playing in the Europa League and trying to challenge at the top end of the league.”
As well as taking his own performance levels to new heights next season, Djoum intends to make sure Hearts continue to enjoy season-on-season improvement. “This club came from the Championship, so to have such a good first season in the Premiership is great,” he said. “I hope in the future we will get even better. The expectation at the club will be even higher next season, so we have to work even harder to go to a higher level. We will have Rangers in the league, so that is more exciting games to play in, and we will have more new players coming to the club, so I’m really looking forward to starting my second season here after the break.”