First interview: Rafal Grzelak opens up on life at Hearts

Rafal Grzelak aims to nail down the left-back role
Rafal Grzelak aims to nail down the left-back role
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Rafal Grzelak shrugs aside the unsettling start to his Hearts career knowing he has the physicality to compete in Scotland.

He admits to not being technically gifted but is determined to help pull the Edinburgh club through difficult times if bare strength is needed.

Events in recent weeks have kept Hearts prominent in media headlines due to a shock Betfred Cup exit, the dismissal of head coach Ian Cathro and a 4-1 opening-day Premiership loss at Celtic Park.

Tomorrow brings a trip to Kilmarnock which carries increasing importance. It would seem essential to get points on the board ahead of visits to Rangers, Motherwell and a “home” game against Aberdeen at Murrayfield.

Grzelak is keen to play his part. The versatile Pole left Korona Kielce in his country’s top flight and signed for Cathro on a two-year contract last month. He played only three times for the Dundonian before he lost his job. Tynecastle supporters will be pleased to know that change hasn’t distracted the 29-year-old from the task in hand.

He is eager to make an impression under interim head coach Jon Daly, with the ultimate goal of helping Hearts qualify for European football this season. The physical nature of Scottish football appeals to a player who is quite happy to embrace the more brutsih side of his game.

“Everything is okay so far and I am enjoying life in Edinburgh,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I’m a bit shocked by the weather but it’s no problem. Most importantly, the club is great and the facilities are great. These are spectacular conditions to work in and train in.

“The style of play here in Scotland is completely different to what I’m used to back in Poland. It’s not just the games which are more intensive. The training here is way more intensive compared to Poland.

“I think I excel in my physical attributes but it’s still a big jump. I see myself as a physical player. I’m a typical left-back who really enjoys going forward. I might not be the best dribbler with the ball but I am very physical and I like that sort of challenge. I am also a good crosser of the ball.

“My agent told me there was an opportunity here at Hearts. Before I signed, I came to Edinburgh and looked at the club. I spoke to the former coach, Ian Cathro, and Craig Levein [director of football]. I really liked their vision going forward. They had a project in mind and I really wanted to be part of that project. Ian Cathro said he really liked me as a player.

“What attracted me to Scotland was a club like Hearts with their aspirations and their plan for going forward. I’m a fighter myself and I’m going to give my best at everything. If I’m missing something, I’m just going to keep pushing myself and give the best I possibly can.

“I haven’t thought about individual goals. At my other clubs, I never thought of myself. I only think of the team because this isn’t an individual sport. I am a team player and I put the team first before myself.

“In terms of the team, it’s a bit disappointing we have already dropped out of the Betfred Cup. The main goal for us as a team is to get the third or fourth spot in the league. We want to play for the European spot. That’s my goal and the team’s goal, to finish third or fourth.”

A change in tactics so early in the season is something else to contend with. Cathro drilled Hearts to play a 3-4-3 formation throughout pre-season but Daly prefers a flat back four. Grzelak is a conveniently versatile player who can operate in a number of positions, therefore the switch has been taken in his stride.

Adaptability was one of the attributes which attracted Cathro and other Hearts coaches to him. He is comfortable at centre-back, left-back, left wing-back or in a holding midfield position. Against Celtic, he played left-back in the four-man defence.

He is competing with the on-loan Manchester City full-back Ashley Smith-Brown for that position at Rugby Park.

“First and foremost, the tactics have changed since the coach changed. We don’t play three at the back any more. That’s the main change,” said Grzelak.

“The mentality of the players hasn’t changed, we still want to win games. We have only played one game so far with a back four and that was against a strong Celtic side, so it’s hard to assess what effect the change is having.

“With Ian Cathro, we really wanted to hold the ball and dominate possession. That was Ian Cathro’s idea. Now we are focusing on the Kilmarnock game and we will see how things go from there.”

Few observers expected Hearts to take anything away from Parkhead last week. Tomorrow is a different story as Daly – assisted by fellow coaches Austin MacPhee and Liam Fox – try to inspire a result in Ayrshire which could kickstart their club’s campaign which the search for a new head coach continues.

Daly plans to implement a more attack-minded gameplan against Kilmarnock and has reinstated unsettled winger Jamie Walker to the squad.

He was left out of the last two matches to “get his head right” after transfer bids from Rangers.

With Cathro gone, he has the opportunity for a fresh start. The sense from within the squad is that the time has come for talking to stop and action to start.

“The change of coach wasn’t easy for me and it wasn’t easy for the whole team,” admitted Grzelak. “We had a set plan with that manager which we were working hard on for the past few weeks. The change wasn’t easy but that’s what happens in sport.

“We just have to leave it in the past and move forward. We have to focus on working hard because it’s not important on what is going on behind the scenes. We have to perform.”