FAYCAL RHERRAS was ready to sign for Belgian club Zulte-Waregem when his mobile phone rang. A Scottish team called Hearts wanted him. After some quick Google research, he jumped on a flight to Edinburgh and signed a three-year contract without hesitation.
That was in May. Three months later, the Moroccan full-back is about to discover the true intricacies of Scottish football when Premiership champions Celtic visit Tynecastle this Sunday.
Gazumping a top-six Belgian club indicates Hearts are offering something appealing. Perhaps it is the chance for a young player to establish himself in British football with the prospect of progressing to England.
Rherras, a 23-year-old Morocco Under-23 internationalist, certainly didn’t wait around. In his first media interview in Scotland, he sat at Riccarton recalling how his move to Hearts almost didn’t happen. “The week I signed here, I was to sign with Zulte-Waregem,” he said. “They finished in the top six in Belgium and my agent had spoken with them. Everything was okay so it was normal that I would sign with them. On the Sunday, I was supposed to go for my medical and sign.
“On the Tuesday, my agent called me and said one club in Scotland was interested in me. I asked what club. He said it was Hearts. I looked on the internet and saw they finished third and qualified for the Europa League last season. I looked at the stadium and people said Tynecastle has a very good atmosphere.
“I told my agent I was interested in Hearts. I came over and watched one game against Ross County [on May 7]. I decided this was the move for me. I could sleep easily because I was going to the UK. I wanted to play football in Scotland or England and progress there. I signed directly with Hearts.
“I didn’t go for the medical at Zulte-Waregem. My agent had to call them and say: ‘Faycal has signed with Hearts’.”
He arrived for pre-season training in June having spent the previous few weeks training with Morocco’s senior international squad. Rherras’ pedigree is impressive, but nothing prepares you for the intensity of a Hearts-Celtic fixture.
“Playing Celtic in the first game is better. It’s a big game at Tynecastle and it’s the first game in the league. Hearts and Celtic are two good teams, it will be a good occasion.
“This is a good team with a good atmosphere. I have looked at two Celtic games and they are a strong team but Hearts have good players. People say football in Scotland is all long balls, long balls. I don’t see this. I have been with Hearts two months and we play football.
“I always want to win in every game. This season, I think we can go for the top three in the league and maybe a cup. These things are very important for reaching the Europa League. I speak with the captain, Alim, so I know the cups are very important to Hearts. The league is the same. We will look at it game by game and try to keep winning.
“I have played against Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Standard Liege and Gent, who reached the knockout rounds of the Champions League last season. In Belgium, these are the top clubs. Now I am in Scotland with Hearts, Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers. It is the same level, although Celtic and Rangers are maybe one level up from Belgium.
“I have also played against Cameroon with my country at under-23 level. Morocco is getting better as a football nation, we have some big players. Medhi Benatia plays for Juventus, Hakim Ziyech is a top player in Holland and might transfer to Borussia Dortmund.”
One confusing characteristic is that Rherras is a right-footed left-back. Even he acknowledges it is unusual but the situation doesn’t seem to hinder him. He performed solidly in Hearts’ four Europa League qualifying ties over the summer.
“My normal position when I was little was left midfield. When I got older, a coach in Belgium, Adrie Koster, looked at me and said: ‘You play left-back.’ I said: ‘Are you serious?’ But I went to play there and now I am a left-back. It’s bizarre that I am right footed and I play left-back but, for me, it is no problem. I have played right-back too. My three positions are left-back, right-back and centre midfield. I enjoy left-back now, I give 100 per cent there.”