DENIS PRYCHYNENKO changed his nationality to guarantee he could play for Hearts. During talks over a move to Tynecastle at the age of 18, he chose German citizenship and ceased being Ukrainian to avoid needing an EU work permit in Britain.
It proved a shrewd move to seal the deal and last weekend it finally paid off with a senior debut in maroon. It only lasted a few minutes but, for Prychynenko, appearing as a substitute in the dying moments of the win over Aberdeen was the proverbial dream come true. He now wants more, starting tomorrow at East End Park when Hearts are expected to utilise their pool of talented youngsters. The imposing midfielder, now 20, is often referred to as a Ukrainian but he addresses the issue of his national allegiance in fluent English, laced with a strong German accent.
Sergei Prychynenko, his father, is Ukrainian. Mother Elena is from Belarus. Prychynenko Jnr, though, is most definitely German.
“I was born in Potsdam in Germany while my dad was playing for the USSR,” he told the Evening News. “When I was five months old, me, my mum and my sister went back to Ukraine to live in Simferopol but my father stayed in Germany to play football there. When I was three, we moved back to Germany. I’ve lived in Germany all my life except for those three years in Ukraine. I had a Ukrainian passport all my life until I was 18. Then I had to decide between Germany or Ukraine. I chose Germany because I couldn’t play for Hearts if I chose Ukraine. I am eligible to play for Germany. That’s a dream of mine, to play for Germany one day.”
One step at a time, though. Prychynenko worked for five months under strict instruction from Paulo Sergio, the Hearts manager, to earn his first-team debut. “It was a great moment,” he continued. “Since I was small, it has been my dream to play in the highest league somewhere and now I’ve achieved that in the Scottish Premier League. When I got home after the Aberdeen game it was like I was still dreaming, I was hoping not to wake up. It was one of the best moments of my life.
“I was hoping to get on a little bit earlier but when the gaffer told me to get ready I was quite nervous. Then Rudi (Skacel) scored to make it 3-0 so I wasn’t nervous any more. I just went on and tried to touch the ball as much as I could.
“After the game I was phoning my father and my mother. This was a dream for them as well, that I would make it as a footballer one day. I was proud to say to them that I had finally played a first-team game.
“The manager speaks to the young players quite often and tells us what he wants us to do. Five months ago he was telling me where I had to improve and I think I’ve done those things. He said he wanted me to work hard and improve my weak points.”
Prychynenko will almost certainly feature at some point against Dunfermline. “I’m not expecting to start or anything. Maybe I can get ten minutes or something, just a little bit more than last week. I just want a little more time to show what I can do. The manager said he will play youngsters a bit more so I hope it’s going to be a chance for me.”
Naturally, Prychynenko wishes to follow in the footsteps of his father. Sergei Prychynenko played for Tavriya Simferopol in Ukraine and CSKA Moscow in Russia, as well as representing the Soviet Union at international level. “He was a good player, he played from the age of 19 to the age of 38. He is the reason I play football. He is like my idol, the person I look up to.”
Prychynenko Jnr already has one advantage over his dad – he harbours a devastating ability to score goals from free-kicks. It is an art he has spent a considerable amount of time perfecting on the training fields of Riccarton, and one which helped him finish last season as top goalscorer for Hearts’ under-19s. A fair achievement for a player whose favoured position is defensive midfield.
“It’s the best feeling to score a goal from a free-kick and it’s an important part of my game,” he said. “I’ve been practising for three years by doing one hour of free-kicks every day. I learned different techniques and now I have three techniques which I use. I like having that ability.
“I scored 14 goals in 18 games for the under-19s last season – ten free-kicks, three penalties and one goal from open play. I like set-pieces. Every goal is in my mind because after games I would watch the DVD of that match.” My style of play is to pass the ball and protect the play. I’m a player who always looks to pass the ball. I keep it simple. I’m the player who takes the ball from the defence and starts the attacks from there, playing the ball out to the wings. I like to play nice football.”
He has been schooled in the Riccarton way and is one of many hoping to make a major impact at first-team level next season. “I know some players are going to leave the club so I hope to be part of the first team more regularly,” said Prychynenko.
“I want to fight for a place in the starting line-up next year. I’m happy for any young player to play, whether it is myself, Jason (Holt), Pum (Scott Robinson). Everybody has to fight for a place in any football team and the player who works hard and deserves it more will play. If young players come through here I will be happy for them.”