A year ago tonight, Soufian El Hassnaoui cut a frustrated onlooker, stuck on the sidelines in his tracksuit, as most of his new team-mates got some game time under their belts in Hearts’ first friendly of the summer against Ludogorets Razgrad in Leigh.
A groin operation which he underwent at the end of the previous campaign with Sparta Rotterdam meant he took no part in his first pre-season with the Tynecastle club and only started running at the beginning of August.
As a result, his first outing for Hearts didn’t arrive until mid-September – two and a half months after the rest of his colleagues – and his first start was at the end of that month. By that point, the much-hyped summer signing was well behind his team-mates and opponents in terms of sharpness.
Then, just as he was starting to get up to speed, his Hearts career was dealt a further setback when an ankle injury sustained in only his seventh start – against Rangers in November – put him out until February. This, by his own admission, effectively rendered his first campaign in Scotland a write-off.
Injury frustration has become a familiar story for El Hassnaoui over the last three years, a period in which he has been limited to just 42 starts. For a 25-year-old with no shortage of belief in his ability, this is not nearly enough. However, now injury free and having started pre-season at the end of last month with the rest of his Hearts colleagues, the Dutch-Moroccan forward is hopeful that he is finally ready to ignite. “I have not had a normal pre-season in each of the last two years so this will be my first full pre-season in three years,” he told the Evening News. “For me, this is very good that I have been able to make the start of pre-season. I think it will be a big difference.
“I had a good holiday of almost seven weeks which is long for a footballer nowadays. Because the Championship finished earlier than the Premiership we had more time off than other clubs. I took my time, and took my rest during the break. My ankle injury was the second big disappointment of last season after my groin problem. But now all the injuries are gone. I’m just working to get my fitness as high as possible this pre-season.”
El Hassnaoui is of no mind to allow his past injury troubles to inhibit him. Towards the end of Wednesday’s 2-0 friendly victory over Bohemian in Dublin, there was momentary concern when he hit the deck writhing in obvious pain after being caught late by home defender Alan Murphy, who was booked. Thankfully for Hearts, El Hassnaoui was soon back on his feet. Despite his recent struggles, he insists he has a strong enough mentality to ensure that fear of another injury won’t creep into his play.
“I wouldn’t say the key thing for me is to avoid injuries because if you start thinking like that, that’s when you do get injuries,” he said. “I’m not afraid of going in for challenges. I had a few on Wednesday. I took a bad tackle from their player but I pulled my leg up just in time. That’s football though, you have to accept that people will tackle you. You just have to know when to step up or step in to a tackle. You can’t be afraid.”
Returning to pre-season with a skinhead, given to him by housemate and team-mate Alim Ozturk, El Hassnaoui gives the impression of a man who means business. He looked hungry in his second-half outing against Bohs and made sure he was first to grab the ball when his team were awarded a late penalty. The forward made no mistake in sealing Hearts’ victory from the spot and is hopeful that this strike proves to be the first of many this season after a shortage of game time helped limit him to just four goals in his side’s Championship-dominating campaign last time round.
“I want to score as many goals as possible and also give plenty assists,” he explained. “I don’t know exactly what position I’m going to play this season. I played behind the striker on Wednesday and I like that position, but I can also play as the striker. I can play wide as well if I have to. That is not my favourite position, but if the gaffer wants me to play there, I will play wide. I will play centre-back if he wants me to!”
El Hassnaoui knows he faces stern competition for a place in the starting XI, never mind one of the central attacking berths. With strikers Juanma Delgado and Gavin Reilly having been added to a squad in which the likes of Osman Sow, Jamie Walker, Billy King and Sam Nicholson are already prominent members, the former Morocco Under-23 player faces a battle for regular action. He is unfazed, however.
“Everybody’s happy to have lots of strikers here,” he said. “You need that. You saw that last season when we had a lot of injuries. I was out a long time. Osman was out for three months and Speedy [Dale Carrick], like me, was out for most of the season. You need a lot of competition to keep the training level as high as possible. I’m happy with that.”
The training level has been high since the Hearts players returned to work last month, according to El Hassnaoui. After Wednesday’s match, which was primarily a fitness exercise, Robbie Neilson’s team underwent a couple of rigorous training sessions in the sunshine at their base on the outskirts of Dublin. They will do likewise today before completing their trip to the Emerald Isle with a friendly against Shelbourne at Tolka Park tomorrow.
“Certainly everybody is fresh again after the summer break,” said El Hassnaoui. “We have worked hard over the last ten days or so. It was good to get back on the pitch [against Bohemians]. It was a difficult pitch and we showed only a few times how we can play, but that game was not about the football, it was definitely just about fitness. We were happy to win though.”
As a man who spent his first year in Scotland immersed in Championship matters, El Hassnaoui admits he knows very little about the Ladbrokes Premiership, other than the fact it will be a step up in standard from last season.
“I watched some games last season but if I’m honest I’ve not watched a lot of Scottish football,” he said. “Like in any country, though, everybody wants to play in the top league. There will always be more football played in the top league because the players are better, stronger and faster. We’ve got a good squad and if we keep working the way we did last season I think we can do great things this season. I don’t know where we will finish because I don’t know the league that well. Our first target is to make the top six and after that we will see what the season brings.”