SINISA MIHAJLOVIC, Diego Simeone, Vincenzo Montella, Sam Allardyce. Just some of the world-renowned coaches Blazej Augustyn has worked under. Hearts’ new Polish defender is only 27, but carries a multitude of experience from England, Italy and his homeland. He intends putting it to good use in the Scottish Premiership, starting tomorrow against St Johnstone.
He is certain of a place in the starting line-up having been rested on Thursday night, when Hearts made heavy work of beating League Two Arbroath in the League Cup. The league is again a priority and Augustyn is ready to stand up to the challenge as his club return to the Premiership. He leans against a wall at Riccarton whilst we chat. In truth, the wall is doing well to hold its own. This man mountain of a centre-half is an identikit model of the defender Hearts believe can take them to the next level.
There is an argument that a player who played five years in Italy and thrived in Serie A shouldn’t even be in Scotland. Augustyn’s history of knee trouble has possibly hindered his progress, but he doesn’t complain. He has already imposed himself in just six weeks in Edinburgh. So much so that Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, considered him for the club captaincy before awarding it to Alim Ozturk.
Augustyn has learned much from luminaries like Mihajlovic and Simeone. How to be a winner is certainly one of his characteristics, which comes through in conversation. He is fully aware of the importance of this season to Hearts and intends to lead by example, even without the captain’s armband.
“My experience in England was with Sam Allardyce,” he recalled of his two-year spell at Bolton Wanderers from 2005-2007. “I was a young boy and he put me on the bench a few times for Premier League games. He was a tough guy and I can see that he is still tough now. Then there was Sammy Lee. I liked him. He was a good coach and was always taking training with us. He was looking for specific things on the pitch.
“In Italy, I had a lot of good coaches and that helped my experience as well. I remember them all and I have good memories of them. Montella, Mihajlovic, Simeone, they were good and they helped me. I learned a lot from them. A lot of people say I’m still young, but I just got a lot of experience in the ten years I’ve been a professional footballer.
“I hope I can use this at Hearts and show my friends in the dressing room that I’m a good player. I’m not looking too far forward to see where I’m going to play in future. I just want to play all of the games for Hearts, be strong and show the people and myself that I’m good enough to play in the biggest teams. Because of injuries, I don’t have that many games on my sheet [CV] so I want to play as much as possible.”
For Augustyn, Neilson compares favourably with the household names above. “I’m happy because I can see Robbie is still a young manager. He’s got a lot of experience. I can see that he doesn’t mess about in the dressing room. He jokes, but he’s a serious guy and that’s what I like.”
There is clearly more than just mutual respect between the pair. Neilson highlights Augustyn as one of the most influential players in the Riccarton dressing room. He is expected to form a long-term partnership with Ozturk in central defence.
“We have guys at 24, 25, 26, who still have a long career ahead of them. Hopefully they’re coming to their peak soon with us,” said Neilson. “Bringing in guys like that helps the dressing room. Blazej coming in, with his attitude and the way he looks after himself, has been phenomenal. A lot of the boys have seen what he does and are trying to replicate that. That’s what we try to do when we bring these boys in.”
Tynecastle supporters have waited a long time to see their team compete in Scotland’s top flight. Almost 15 months, in fact. Hearts’ last Premiership game was a 1-1 draw at St Mirren on May 10, 2014. Tomorrow, the Championship flag gets unfurled in front of a packed stadium as that wait comes to an end.
“I knew Hearts had a lot of supporters, but I didn’t expect quite so many. They just follow us everywhere,” said Augustyn. “At the Preston friendly, I was surprised to see a lot of people there supporting Hearts. They know we have a good team. A lot of the guys are young but they are good players. They just need to be more focused on the game.
“On Thursday night against Arbroath, in the first half, I could see that they thought it would be too easy. That’s the wrong way to think. It’s always much harder to play against a team from a lower league because they are all behind the ball.”
The 4-2 midweek victory was certainly uneasy, but Augustyn’s presence will offer reassurance against St Johnstone. The Pole admits to slight pain from an Achilles problem but is determined to shrug his discomfort so that he can help Hearts get off to a fast start. “We have been working hard and we are just looking forward to the league now. I had an Achilles problem and I feel a little bit of pain but I will play anyway. I played in all the pre-season games except the Everton friendly and I feel fit. I have trained in every single session so I feel good.”