Hearts will use the next two weeks of inactivity to work on the fitness of their Dutch-Moroccan striker Soufian El Hassnaoui.
Following today’s Championship match against Falkirk, they do not play until Saturday, September 13, at Dumbarton. Head coach Robbie Neilson wants El Hassnaoui ready to start that game if necessary.
The 24-year-old has yet to play for his new club after a summer groin operation but could finally make his debut this afternoon from the substitutes’ bench. Neilson conceded that the forward is not fit enough to start but he will play an under-20 match and bounce matches over the next fortnight to improve his condition.
“He’s obviously been out for a while,” said Neilson. “He got his operation at the end of last season and he’s been building up slowly. He’s getting there but we don’t want to rush him too much. We play Falkirk today and he won’t be ready for a start but then we have a fortnight to go until the next game. We’ll try and work on his fitness during that time.
“There is an under-20s game and we’ll play a couple of bounce games between us to try and get him there. We’ll see how he does. He’s been working hard and he’ll be desperate to get involved.”
El Hassnaoui was an unsused substitute in Tuesday night’s League Cup win over Stenhousemuir at Ochilview and admitted being frustrated by his prolonged absence. He had surgery upon leaving former club Sparta Rotterdam in May and missed all of pre-season after signing a three-year contract with Hearts.
“I was on the bench on Tuesday and normally I would have played at some stage, but circumstances were not that good. That happens, so I will look to the next game,” said the player. “It has been frustrating, naturally. I came in with a groin problem. It was almost done but I then I had more problems and I continued to struggle. But at the end hard work pays off and I am there now.
“I want to make up for lost time. I want to work hard and see what I can do for Hearts. Osman Sow has scored, James Keatings has scored so there is a lot of competition, but that’s good. If you don’t have competition that’s not good for the squad and you won’t be champions without it. I just have to do my best and I think I’ll be okay.”
Although dismissive of Hibs’ title chances, El Hassnaoui admitted it was their presence and that of Rangers in the Scottish Championship which persuaded him to join Hearts. “Rangers and Hibs being in the league was a big attraction for me because you have three big clubs. That’s not normal, but it’s good for us. I’m just focused on Hearts. First I have to do well here and then we can talk about something else.”
For Neilson, today’s encounter with Falkirk pits him against the club which properly launched his coaching career. During a seven-month spell at Westfield in season 2012-13, he undertook a range of coaching duties as his playing career suffered due to injury. Now 34, he admits he probably would not be head coach at Hearts were it not for opportunities afforded him by Falkirk.
“I didn’t expect to be facing them as a manager so quickly,” he said. “I had a great time at Falkirk with Steven Pressley, Neil MacFarlane, Alex Smith and, of course, Stevie Crawford [now his assistant at Hearts]. It was a great learning curve for me, working with them every day and doing stuff at the academy at night. They were fantastic with me.
“I went there as a player-coach but I injured my cheekbone and ended up doing a lot of coaching. That gave me the opportunity to move on to East Fife afterwards. I still keep in contact with people at Falkirk and Alex is somebody I always speak to.
“Falkirk gave me the grounding I needed in coaching. I did a wee bit of coaching at Dundee United but I really made the transition to coaching at Falkirk. I continued that to find myself where I am just now. I’ve got a lot of people to thank there for where I’ve ended up.”