JUWON OSHANIWA epitomises Hearts’ motivation levels right now. The Nigerian could talk all day in that distinctive African accent about his new club and their ambition.
After Saturday’s convincing 3-0 defeat of Partick Thistle, he was clearly euphoric at still peering down from the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
“Names don’t play football, with due respect to Celtic,” he said of a possible challenge to the reigning champions. “The 90 minutes is going to tell. I play for Hearts and when we go in there, we’re not just going in there as a chicken. I’m not here for a picnic, I’ve come here for business.
“I know what it takes to be celebrated as a champion. In 2013 I was a champion in the African Nations Cup. When you emerge as a champion, the atmosphere is always awesome and you have got a lot of family. When you’re a loser, you become an orphan. This is what has been our target this season. Hearts are going to be celebrated at the end of the season.
“Celtic have big, experienced players and a big budget. They are the reigning champion of the country but 90 minutes tells the story in football. We have young players, determined players, experienced gaffers, management and board. I know we are equal to the task to fight for the title.”
Oshaniwa delivered his thoughts with the same boldness that brought Hearts their fifth successive league win. If he sounded like he’s getting a little carried away, that’s because he probably is. Yet there is something to be admired about his willingness to take the fight to Celtic. A willingness that exists within all his Tynecastle team-mates despite their status as a newly-promoted team.
The Parkhead club moved top of the Premiership with their lunchtime triumph over Dundee United on Saturday. Within a few hours, they were usurped again. In front of 16,657 fans, Hearts maintained their perfect start to the season to record their first home league success against Partick Thistle since January 2005. Osman Sow, Sam Nicholson and Juanma were the goalscorers, Callum Paterson, Igor Rossi and Oshaniwa were just as influential.
Partick Thistle played their part in an open and entertaining game but lacked guile in attack and couldn’t open up the home defence. In short, they were pretty toothless and remain without a win after five league fixtures. They are neat and tidy in midfield and always stick to their passing game, but that was nowhere near enough against a rampant Hearts in their own domain.
Sow struck the first goal on 29 minutes. Paterson attacked Nicholson’s corner and, after a couple of ricochets, the ball broke to the Swede to convert from close range. Thistle appealed that Paterson had impeded their goalkeeper, Tomas Cerny, but the goal stood.
Nicholson passed up the chance to score a crucial second on 55 minutes. He collected Morgaro Gomis’s through ball and went one-on-one with Cerny, only to roll his shot wide of goal. On 68 minutes he did ripple the net. Cerny saved Juanma’s penalty low to his left after Paterson had been tripped by Stuart Bannigan in the box. Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, had ordered his players to follow in on Juanma’s kick en masse and Nicholson reached the loose ball first.
Minutes later, the Spaniard atoned for the penalty error with a classy finish to round off a 3-0 scoreline. He chased another of Gomis’s through balls and managed to catch Frederic Frans, who looked to be towing a caravan in fairness. Juanma held the defender off and beautifully lobbed the bouncing ball over the advancing Cerny.
With the victory secured, 16-year-old substitute Callum Morrison was given a senior debut minutes from the end as the latest Riccarton youth player to impress Neilson. The head coach is in fact not an easy man to please, confirmed by his view that Saturday’s performance left much room for improvement.
“We were a bit wasteful in the first half,” he said. “We got into good areas but didn’t create a lot of great chances. We were okay, not great. The second half was better in terms of attacking, and I’m pleased with the clean sheet, but there’s a lot we could have done better. We need to be more clinical at times because we won’t get so many opportunities against Aberdeen and Celtic, so we need to take those when they come to us.”
Neilson didn’t share Oshaniwa’s view that Hearts are ready to stand toe to toe with Celtic either. “We’re still a long way off competing with Celtic in the long term. At the moment, the players are a bit patched up. Buaben and Ozturk are playing with injuries, because they want to help us win. We’ve got the international break after the next two games, so they’ll get a good rest and that should see the team looking a bit sharper after that.”
One player who is sharper already is Juanma. The giant forward is beginning to adjust to Scottish football and used his physique and close control to good effect against Thistle. Each time the ball went forward, Juanma was the shield, holding off opponents until colleagues arrived to link up.
He even showed character to shrug aside his missed penalty and earn himself a goal from open play within minutes. As he continues to get fitter, there is no telling the damage he may do to defences.
“Juanma’s physicality was really important, the ball stuck to him,” said Neilson. “He missed the penalty but responded brilliantly, and he probably enjoyed that goal more than he would have enjoyed a penalty going in. He’s done everything that we’ve asked of him, he holds the ball up, brings players into the game and he’s scoring goals too, so I’m very pleased with how he’s doing.”
For Partick Thistle’s Alan Archibald, Saturday was a day of frustration. “Take nothing away from Hearts, I just thought we were very, very poor,” he complained. “Our key players that we like to get on the ball just didn’t play. It’s very disappointing and I feel for Kris Doolan as well. He didn’t have any support up front with him. I said before the game that Tynecastle is a great place to play football but you have to be brave and get on the ball.”