Four goal-preventing clearances in recent weeks have seen the Moroccan full-back Faycal Rherras assume cult hero status amongst Hearts fans. It also earned him a place in goal in the Scottish Professional Football League Team of the Week.
The player is pleased, if perhaps slightly overwhelmed, by all the attention. He argues that three goalline clearances against Motherwell and one against tomorrow’s opponents, Rangers, last month is simply evidence that he is doing his job properly.
A bout of malaria in October has finally subsided, leaving Rherras feeling back to full strength. His key interventions of late have provided a welcome confidence boost for a defender who didn’t seem himself after illness.
Medical tests have come back clear and he is now in peak condition for a crucial run of matches, starting with new head coach Ian Cathro’s debut at Ibrox tomorrow.
Cathro has studied footage of all Hearts’ recent fixtures. He would be forgiven for expecting Rherras to warm up alongside Jack Hamilton and Viktor Noring on his first day at Riccarton.
“The last coach [Robbie Neilson] told me before that I am the king at the back post. The ball came to me and I managed to stop it four times. This is good for me,” smiled Rherras, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“I saw the Team of the Week on Twitter and it was a nice moment to see my name there. Four clearances on the line does not happen very often so I am pleased I managed to do this.
“The fans are happy because I saved four goals in two games. In the last game against Ross County, I listened to the Hearts supporters behind the goal when we were defending the first corner. They were shouting: ‘C’mon Rherras, back post, back post.’ It’s nice to hear this from the fans.”
Rherras is now a firm favourite with the Gorgie natives just six months since arriving on a three-year contract. He left the Belgian club Sint-Truidense to continue his career in Scotland and is already enjoying a good deal of public backing.
“I have a good relationship with the Hearts supporters. I have been a professional footballer for three years and these are the best supporters I have played for.
“I feel very good here, I am happy and the team is strong. Physically, I am very well. I had my medical and I feel very good now after my illness.”
Of course, Rherras is not the only Hearts employee receiving a lot of attention at present. Cathro’s appointment in place of Neilson prompted many within Scottish football to comment, and not always favourably.
The 30-year-old Dundonian will have been in charge for just four days before leading his team to Ibrox for his first ever match in management. It is a daunting assignment, although the Hearts players are encouraged by what they have seen so far from Cathro and his assistant, Austin MacPhee.
“We have had one week with the new coach and I think we have a good relationship with him,” said Rherras. “I spoke with the team and we know this is a new idea. He is a young coach but he has lots of experience because he has coached Rio Ave, Valencia and Newcastle.
“It’s difficult for the new coach to have his first game away against Rangers. There will be a lot of Rangers fans there. We won 2-0 against Rangers only last week, so that is motivation for us. I am going to Rangers for three points.”
Does he have any goal-line clearances planned this week? “Maybe. If the ball comes to me, I will do everything to stop it. We work on set-pieces before the game so I will be the man to be strong at the back post,” he laughed.
Jokes have been coming at the Moroccan internationalist thick and fast due to his extraordinary defensive powers. Both team-mates and opponents have lined up to exploit his ability to provide that last-gasp clearance when everyone else looks beaten.
“After the Motherwell game, their goalkeeper told me I should go and buy a lottery ticket because I saved three goals on the line,” smiled the 23-year-old. “Against Rangers, last week, their fans were shouting at me: ‘Are you a goalkeeper, or what?’ But this is my job.
“The back post is very important for the team and for the goalkeeper especially. The keeper deals with the front post so my job is to be at the back post.
“The day after the Rangers game, [Nikolay] Todorov gave me a pair of goalkeeping gloves and I got a picture taken. It’s been very good fun, but tomorrow is serious. We want to beat Rangers again.”
Robbie Muirhead’s first two goals in maroon earned Hearts three points when the teams met at Tynecastle last week – a fixture which doubled as Neilson’s last in charge. That followed the 3-0 win over Motherwell, although the Edinburgh club were held to a 2-2 draw by Ross County in the Highlands last Saturday.
Cathro has only had minimal time to implement his ideas and has been keen to stress he will not make sweeping changes. He is more content to feel his way into the job and assess first before deciding whether anything needs altered.
Rherras is certain to retain his place in the back four tomorrow, with Callum Paterson, John Souttar and Igor Rossi also expected to start. Rossi limped off in Dingwall after appearing to tweak a groin in the second half, but Cathro has declared all of his players fit and well for the trip to Glasgow.
The only exception is Sam Nicholson, who is still recovering from knee surgery and should resume training next month.
“Everybody is clear of injury, apart from the long-term ones. There are maybe some things being managed but nothing of significance,” said Cathro.