Esmael Goncalves used to party so hard that even Mauricio Pinilla, the ultimate Hearts wildman, would have looked like a choirboy in comparison. Thankfully for the Tynecastle club, Goncalves no longer wants to burn the candle at both ends.
If he did, they wouldn’t have paid Anorthosis Famagusta £175,000 to bring him to Scotland on a three-and-a-half-year contract.
The 25-year-old is now a reformed character, pledging that his socialising is now far more restrained since he got together with Lucia and became a father to one-year-old son Santiago. That may come as a disappointment to Edinburgh establishments like Tigerlily and Le Monde, whose takings took a hit when Chile’s biggest playboy Pinilla left Hearts.
A few years ago, Goncalves would have been a like-for-like replacement. He famously attended Austin MacPhee’s parents’ silver wedding anniversary the night before his St Mirren debut against Celtic in 2013. That was because the then-St Mirren assistant wanted to keep eyes on his new loanee. MacPhee was warned not to let Goncalves out of his sight by Ian Cathro, then a coach at the forward’s Portuguese parent club, Rio Ave.
Fast forward four years and much has changed. Cathro and MacPhee have paired up as head coach and assistant at Hearts and have supplemented their squad with a more sensible and mature Goncalves. He arrives in a rich vein of form ready to face Rangers on Wednesday night after ten goals in his last 14 Anorthosis appearances. He puts the prosperity down to his new lifestyle.
“I am very different now,” laughed the striker. “At that time before, I was young. I didn’t care about how I lived my life. I played football and then just lived. Now I have a wife, I have a baby, it is a different life. Now it is just about the football. I am ready to settle. It is the right moment.
“Why did I not settle before? I was a young guy. I didn’t think: ‘I must do this thing right.’ I just did the things I did. I didn’t think about the choices I made. Now it is different. I think about football, I think about my family and when I made this choice I spoke with them – and I made the right choice.”
He still recalls the night of MacPhee’s parents’ party vividly. “That is true. I liked my freedom back then and if I was left alone I could go a little bit crazy, you know? Austin took me to a small party, I stayed there with him and I enjoyed it.
“I’m not boring now. Just quiet and calm. The moment I met my girlfriend and then I had my baby boy, I started to think that I must stop doing these crazy things and begin to think more like a man, not like a boy.
“There was the football also. You do come to a moment when you think it’s now or never. You can have talent, you can be amazing and have everything you want, but if you don’t have your head in the right place then you will never achieve anything.
“A lot of people told me to stop what I was doing, to be clever and think about your life. I never listened and then came a point when I thought: ‘This has to stop and I have to start working.’”
Cathro knows the player well and is adamant he is ready to realise his potential in Gorgie after growing up. “Isma was at a point four or five years ago when he was going to be the ‘next one’. He was the ‘next one’,” admitted the Dundonian. “But, for a number of reasons, that never panned out at that moment. I believe entirely that now he has another one of those big opportunities.
“This time, on a personal level, he is ready for it. That’s the reason we have made the effort to bring him here. It’s because he is ready for it. He’s a man now, he’s a father and a good person.”
Goncalves outlined a desire to repay Cathro and MacPhee for placing their faith in him once again. His eight goals in 16 games for St Mirren – one of which was against Hearts in the 2013 League Cup final – hinted at a player capable of playing at a higher level. “This is a big club in Scotland and the other reason I am here is the people, Ian and Austin. I had an attractive talk with them and I am very happy,” he explained.
“Ian was very good when we worked before together. He is intelligent. In Portugal, it was Ian who worked on a lot of the tactics and took training as well. He was young but even then you could see he would go far in football.
“I did well at St Mirren because Austin was with me and helped me a lot. Every day he would call and asked who I was and whether I needed anything. So a lot of what I did was down to Austin because he was always around me.”
Goncalves is one of nine new Hearts signings this month – the others being Andraz Struna, Aaron Hughes, Tasos Avlonitis and Lennard Sowah in defence, plus midfielders Malaury Martin, Dylan Bikey, Alex Tziolis and Choulay. Some of the above have been without regular football since last summer. Goncalves has been playing regularly in Cyprus and is ready to take on Rangers at Tynecastle this evening if selected.
“I am ready if the manager wants me. I am fit,” he said. “I have been playing so I’m fine. I scored against Celtic on my debut for St Mirren. I love the big games and if I play against Rangers then I also it will be another big game for me.
“It can be difficult with so many new players because you’ve got to get to know each other in a short space of time. But the right players can understand one another. The manager will choose the right ones. I have played before in all new teams and if you are focused then you can understand each other right away.”
Memories of his time at St Mirren will have been erased from the mind by many Hearts supporters following that League Cup final loss. Cathro provided an encouraging insight into the man he believes can offer a different type of option to Hearts’ existing forwards during the second half of the campaign.
“Isma is a powerful striker who will run with the ball and run without the ball. He will directly go up against and attack centre-backs and he will make the ball go in the goal.
“I would have no fears about playing him tonight. He has been playing in Cyprus so he has that rhythm of playing and there is no concern over him. In that respect, he is maybe different from some of the other guys. He is in a fine position to be exposed to competition.”
For those still asking why such a talented attacker found himself playing for a mid-table Cypriot club to begin with, the aforementioned lack of maturity at least played a part.
“There were other factors as well,” stressed Cathro. “For a variety of reasons things have slowed a little bit for him. Sometimes that is football or life showing you how you need to grow. He has done that and I am really pleased for him.”
Once a playboy, now the boy just wants to play.