Alex Tziolis endured a Greek tragedy on a cold October night in Belfast 16 months ago.
He suffered every minute of his country’s 3-1 European Championship qualifying defeat against Northern Ireland and still hurts thinking about it. Unknown to the multilingual midfielder, he had just sown the seeds of a move to Hearts.
Austin MacPhee, Northern Ireland’s assistant coach who now performs the same role at Tynecastle, noted Tziolis’ ability and took a mental note of a player he felt deserved more than a 3-1 skelping. So, when offered the chance to bring him to Hearts last month, MacPhee and head coach Ian Cathro had no hesitation.
“In the last few days of the transfer window, my agent told me there was interest from Hearts and Austin MacPhee called me,” explained the 31-year-old, who is fluent in five languages.
“Austin knew me from the Greece national team when we played against Northern Ireland. We spoke and I took the decision to come. We were in the same group as Northern Ireland for Euro 2016 qualifying. It wasn’t a good period for Greece and we lost 2-0 at home and 3-1 in Belfast to Northern Ireland.
“Northern Ireland actually qualified for the tournament when they beat us so they had a party. It was a bad time for us, but at least some good came out of it with Austin seeing something in me. It’s hard to see what he would have spotted – we lost 3-1! Seriously, we spoke on the telephone and he said he knew me well and talked about the club.”
Tziolis also sought out his own information before signing a contract until the end of the season.
“I took a call from my very good friend, Christos Karipidis, who played at Hearts. He is a great guy and I’m very close to him and he told me all about the club, city and fans. I wasn’t enjoying my time at PAOK in the last few months so I needed somewhere to go and play and this was a very good opportunity for me.
“I was already thinking positive things about Hearts but if you are going to a new club then it’s normal to talk to someone who was there and it made the decision easier. Christos enjoyed his time at Hearts and he was actually a bit jealous when I told him I was coming here.”
Karipidis, below, spent three years in Edinburgh from 2006 to 2009 but never experienced a victory over Rangers like the one in which Tziolis made his Hearts debut. “It was a really nice to start to my Hearts career,” he said of Wednesday night’s 4-1 win. “The team played really well and it was easier to come into a situation like that. I was surprised with the score and performance against Rangers but I really enjoyed the atmosphere.
“I want to learn about this football, the British style is different. I’ve played one game but I liked the atmosphere in the stadium. I will learn over the next few weeks.”
Hearts fans have already learned that Tziolis is a class act from his 35-minute appearance in midweek. Two-goal hero Jamie Walker mentioned in his post-match BT Sport interview that “the big Greek boy” had come off the bench and done well. The question everyone wants answered is whether he will stay beyond the summer.
“I really don’t know,” admitted Tziolis. “I signed until the end of May and I don’t think about the future just now. I’ve just come to the club and I want to play football. I would like to help the team play in Europe. I’m just here and I don’t think about the future.”
European and international football have been regular occurrences throughout Tziolis’ career. He played in the 2009 Europa League final during a loan spell with Werder Bremen, counts Panathinaikos, Racing Santander, Monaco and PAOK Salonika amongst his former clubs, and holds 62 Greek caps.
“For me, the national team is very important. The last ten years have been a very good period. We were in the World Cup and Euros and in this period it was always to be with the national team.”
A fallout at PAOK led to his contract being terminated last month. “I don’t want to speak about it. It was not so good, my relationship with the club, maybe the coach and the director. It’s in the past.”
Tziolis and his compatriot Tasos Avlonitis arrived on Monday as the first Greek pairing at Tynecastle since Karipidis and Takis Fyssas. “It’s easier because we speak the same language. Even if Tasos wasn’t here, it would be okay. The city is beautiful and I speak English okay. Andraz Struna also played in Greece and he likes the Greek mentality. It helps.”
Austin MacPhee doesn’t speak Greek but it could be argued his eye for a player has been the biggest help of all.