As Tynecastle prepares to welcome another close-to-capacity crowd for Hearts’ clash with Motherwell tomorrow, Prince Buaben has assured supporters that their backing has been crucial to the team’s perfect start to life in the Premiership.
In the opening-day win over St Johnstone, it was hard to escape the feeling that the fans helped roar the Jambos to victory after they were pegged back from 3-1 up to 3-3 by their visitors. And at Dundee on Saturday, it was notable that most of the 2300 travelling supporters applauded their team off the park at half-time even though they trailed 1-0 and had been abject for much of the half.
Buaben insists the sound of cheers, as opposed to jeers, as the players made their way towards the tunnel – near the corner between Dens Park’s main stand and the away end – helped lift a group who knew they had underperformed in the first half. The end result was a 2-1 win for Hearts and a share of top spot in the fledgling Premiership table.
“The supporters are such a big part of this club,” midfielder Buaben told the Evening News. “They are always supporting us and they were very good to us at Dundee. At half-time, instead of booing us they were actually applauding us off even though we hadn’t played well. That’s what you want. If the fans boo you it just brings the players’ heads down and makes it harder. But our fans cheered us when we were heading to the dressing-room and that gave us a real lift. It was amazing.
“These supporters genuinely make a difference to us, especially in bad times like Saturday.”
The half-time transformation at the weekend wasn’t all down to the away support, of course. It owed as much to a combination of tactical tweaks and an old-fashioned rant from head Robbie Neilson.
“In the first half we were disappointed and the gaffer wasn’t happy with us at half-time,” said Buaben. “Sometimes in football you need a bit of a push from the manager. He had a bit of a go at us in the dressing-room and made us waken up a bit. He made it clear at half-time that he wanted to win the game and obviously we came out in the second half and did much better. It helped also that we had gone back to our usual formation.”
Buaben has been one of the most outspoken Hearts players this summer with regard to their prospects of challenging at the very top end of the Premiership. Now that they are in a share of the lead, however, the midfielder is in no mood to go shouting his mouth off about what they can achieve. That said, he is adamant that there is still plenty more to come from Hearts, who will tomorrow aim to make it three wins out of three at the start of a top-flight campaign for the first time since George Burley’s team took Scottish football by storm a decade ago.
“I don’t want to get carried away,” he said. “The gaffer has put so much belief in the team and made us believe what we can do. We have set our targets and hopefully we can reach that this season.
“Last season everything took off from the start of the season so hopefully we can do something similar this season. It takes time to click though - we’ve got half a new team here and they will take time to settle in properly. The new boys have all settled in really well, but I think there’s a lot more to come from all of them.”
Given the impact Juanma Delgado in particular has made so far, that is an exciting proposition for the Hearts support. The Spaniard has already scored three goals in two competitive starts for the club and is fast establishing himself as a talismanic figure. Buaben feels the big striker is nowhere near his peak yet, though.
“Juanma’s good, but he’s still getting used to the physical side of the Scottish game,” said the midfielder. “He doesn’t really understand the game yet, but I think after a few more games he will be even better when he gets used to it.”
Another in a similar boat is Nigerian left-back Juwon Oshaniwa, who made his debut at Dundee. “Juwon did well on Saturday,” said Buaben. “Like Juanma, he’s come from a different country and it will take time for him to get use to the way we play.”
Buaben found himself jumping to the defence of his fellow African when he was accused by the Dundee players of play-acting following an incident which led to Oshaniwa having to be substituted with 15 minutes left. “The referee was telling Juwon to get off the pitch and I said ‘no, he’s got cramp, you can’t ask him to walk off the pitch’,” Buaben explained. I told him to take his time.”
Buaben himself is still trying to get up to speed. He has lasted the entirety of both Hearts’ league games so far despite missing most of pre-season with a hamstring problem. He admits he is still playing through the pain barrier
“I felt a bit better in the Dundee game than I did in the St Johnstone game, but I’ve still got a bit of a hamstring problem which I’m trying to fight,” he explained. “I just want to keep going and hopefully it goes away. It’s not a major thing - I’ve not torn anything – it’s just a bit tight.
“Normally I don’t moan, but I found the St Johnstone game really hard. In the first half of that game I was trying to see how fit I was, but the gaffer told me to calm down a bit and try and control the game instead of running about chasing everything. When he said that, I felt better in the second half. I felt my hamstring a bit against Dundee as well but, it feels like it’s getting better every day. I should be fine for Motherwell.”