Esmael Goncalves insists he has no regrets about pledging his long-term future to Hearts despite a disappointing run of results since he arrived.
A sense of negativity has swirled around the Tynecastle club in recent months, with six defeats and just four wins in the 12 matches since their well-documented winter transfer business was concluded.
Goncalves was among nine new players recruited in the last transfer window and has so far been one of the more productive January signings with five goals in 11 appearances, including the winner in last weekend’s 1-0 victory over Dundee.
Although his new team’s form has been underwhelming since he returned to Scotland two-and-a-half months ago, the 25-year-old former St Mirren and Anorthosis Famagusta forward is content with his decision to snub more lucrative offers from elsewhere to join Hearts on a three-and-a-half-year contract.
“I am enjoying life with the team, the people, the staff and the fans,” said Goncalves. “I like it a lot here. The city is nice. When I got the phone call to come here, I had other opportunities to go to other countries for money, but this was a clear choice for me. There are things more important than money. I could have gone to Azerbaijan and places like that. But I had made decisions based on money before – I went to Saudi Arabia around two years ago – and I was not going to do that again.
“I am more mature and think about other things, and Hearts was the right move for all the important reasons. I need to look after my family and I cannot make choices without thinking about them. What really matters is that we have a good life and a healthy life together. Also, it was a football decision. The football here is better.”
Despite the new-look Hearts squad enduring a difficult time on the pitch, Goncalves explained that the players are working hard to foster a sense of team spirit and camaraderie. “There is a good atmosphere in the dressing-room,” he said. “With so many new players, everybody has been trying to get to know each other but we are joking together. It’s difficult when we lose games, but I think this can make us stronger together.
“At the moment, we are a team. I don’t just mean on the football pitch – I mean off the pitch as well. Just because we don’t win, it doesn’t mean we don’t trust each other. I am particularly close with Arnaud [Djoum], Jamie [Walker], Prince [Buaben] and Malaury [Martin]. As a team, we have been out for lunch together. We play a small league in the training once a week, and the players who lose have to pay for lunch. It helps the spirit in the team. I paid for dinner the last time!”
Goncalves’ goal against Dundee last weekend stopped a run of three consecutive defeats and kept alive Hearts’ slender hopes of finishing fourth and qualifying for the Europa League. The striker, who is expected to lead the attack against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park this evening, admits he is yet to hit top gear.
“It was good to score but the most important thing was the three points,” he said. “I have five goals but I am not completely happy – I could score more.”
Goncalves is enjoying being reunited with Ian Cathro, the assistant manager when he was at Rio Ave in Portugal, and Austin MacPhee, with whom he struck up a strong rapport during their time together at St Mirren four years ago. The forward, who was renowned for a party animal lifestyle off the pitch and an instinctive, off-the-cuff approach on it, cites MacPhee, the current Hearts No.2, as a key man in maturing him both as a player and a person.
“I worked with both Ian and Austin at different clubs and we had an excellent relationship – that was important in me coming here,” said Goncalves. “Even when I was abroad, I used to speak to Austin all the time. We would speak about life, about football, his son and my son. He was a friend. I thought at that time ‘I’ll probably never work with him again’, but it was a happy surprise when he said he was joining up again with Ian and they could bring me in.
“I probably changed to the person I am now because Austin told me and I like him so I listened to him. I didn’t understand at the time why I must make these changes. But I don’t go out at all now. I go to the restaurant with my fiancée and my baby but I don’t go out. I don’t feel the need to go out any more. It’s not like I’m sitting at home thinking ‘I want to go out and have a drink’.
“I think it has helped me as a player. I think I am more serious and mature now. Before I used to attack all the time – any time you give me a ball I would just attack. I don’t think it was good for my game. Now I know when I have to go, when I have to stop, when I have to drop back. I think I’m a better player now, more disciplined on the pitch and off it.”