A sparse goalscoring record in recent years isn’t eating into Conor Sammon’s confidence, Hearts fans will be pleased to know. Despite temperatures of 35 degrees in Malta, the Irishman feels no heat whatsoever. He is cool, calm and ready for business.
Tonight would be a perfect time to open his goalscoring account for his new club. Hearts want an away goal against Birkirkara to seize the initiative in the first leg of the Europa League second qualifying round.
Sammon is eager to oblige without being overly agitated. He managed six goals last season on loan at Sheffield United from Derby County. The previous year, during loans with Ipswich Town and Rotherham United, his combined tally was four. As it was the year before that at Pride Park.
It is a frustrating record for the striker. Unable to ripple nets as frequently as he wanted in England, he cut his losses and returned to Scotland last month to sign a three-year contract at Tynecastle.
He started both legs of Hearts’ 6-3 aggregate win over the Estonian club Infonet in the Europa League’s first qualifying round. The next round brings them here to an archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea. It may be roasting hot, but Malta is no footballing hotbed. Sammon knows composure will be vital this evening.
“From my point of view, I need to be a real threat going forward. I want to attack in the box, getting shots in and getting on the end of crosses. The goals will come,” said the 29-year-old, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I’m fully aware of how hard you have to work if you want to be successful here.
“Sometimes you can work as hard as anyone and certain things don’t fall for you. I’ve had lots of experiences where you just need to keep working hard and the chances will come. If you keep doing the simple things in games - getting your touch, holding the ball up, making the right runs, trying to gel with your team-mates - I’ve no doubt the goals will come.
“It’s not something that weighs on my mind at all. If I’m playing and the team is winning, you can’t really argue with that.”
Two wins in two European ties to date is a case of so far, so good. Birkirkara guarantee a sterner test than Infonet, though. They boast a collection of Balkan players from countries including Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia. They also have three South Americans - Argentinian defender Mauricio Mazzetti, Brazilian midfielder Emerson Marcelina and his Chilean counterpart Edison Bilbao.
Clearly, this is not your standard team from the part-time Maltese Premier League. An added difficulty is the aforementioned heat. Temperatures at the Hibernians Stadium are likely to be near 30 degrees by kick-off at 8.30pm local time tonight.
Sammon has the suncream looked out. “Yeah, usually I don’t really like staying out in the sun too much. I’d be burnt to a crisp if I stayed out all day. I’m fully aware of how you need to prepare,” he admitted.
“You need your sleep to be right, your nutrition, your hydration, it’s all crucial. It’s even more important when you travel to play in such hot conditions. I try to be spot-on with preparation for every game.
“I’ve played a few games abroad in the heat when it’s humid. It’s a challenge, although the reality is it’s the same for both teams. They might be more used to training and playing in these conditions but I don’t see it being a massive advantage. I’ve got every confidence in our ability as a group to deal with this.
“I’d imagine the game will have a slower tempo to it. You don’t need to be an expert to realise you can’t physically go 100 per cent flat out for 90 minutes when the heat is that extreme. We’ve prepared, we know what the manager’s looking for. We’ve spoken as players about how we can help each other, like with pressing in a different way when we don’t have the ball.”
Whether it is Sammon or Juanma Delgado playing up front, there is an obvious need to hold the ball when it comes forward. “If the ball is being played forward and it’s coming straight back on top of you, you’re asking for problems. It’s hard to build attacks and create chances. I’m fully aware of the sort of role a striker has in this team, whether it’s a lone striker or two forwards.
“There is good competition for places here and there’s plenty quality in the dressing room. When you get an opportunity to start a game, you need to make it your jersey to keep. Whoever starts the game needs to play to the best of their ability and work for the team.”
Sammon acknowledges how different his summer might have been had he not negotiated an early release from Derby to join Hearts. He would still be pounding the grass in search of pre-season stamina rather than playing European football.
“Usually you’re looking at six or seven weeks of training, maybe a training camp away somewhere, and lots of friendly games to build up fitness before competitive games. This has been really enjoyable, coming back in knowing the meaningful games are coming quickly. That’s a result of all the hard work that went on last season getting the club into the Europa League.
“This is a chance for the lads to enjoy a really good experience but also to step up to the plate for a really tough challenge. There are a lot of unknown teams in these first and second round qualifiers, but there are no easy games. Lots of people would look at the team from Estonia in the last round and think it was a formality but it doesn’t work like that.
“We knew we had to do the business on the pitch, so it was nice to get through. We’re trying to build on each game but tonight is another big test. It’s tough with the weather out here but we’re all looking forward to it.
“When you join a new team, you want to improve it and add some quality. That’s the opportunity we’ve got, to come into a group of players who have been successful and try to continue that success. There’s no better way to do it than playing in Europe and having to travel to face good teams over two legs. It’s fantastic, a great challenge.”