Although he believes Hearts are destined to lose a league game at some point this season, Alim Ozturk is basking in satisfaction at their nine-point lead at the top of the Scottish Championship.
He has played in Holland and Turkey, but never experienced the intensity he did on Saturday, when a raucous Tynecastle roared Hearts on to a colossal 2-0 win over Rangers.
The Edinburgh club have now beaten the pre-season title favourites home and away and are heavily backed to win the league. That may bring a degree of pressure even though November is not yet finished, but if so then Ozturk is clearly immune to it. The 22-year-old is a figure of contentment after a weekend win which took his club one step nearer their stated aim of automatic promotion come next May.
The longer this unbeaten league run continues, the greater other teams’ desire to end it will become. Ozturk is fully aware he and his colleagues are up there to be shot at as they streak ahead of their nearest challengers. He is enjoying the chase and the exhilaration that comes with it. The sub-plot to his first season in Scotland is one to cherish for the Dutch-born Turk.
“There was pressure because it was six points before the Rangers game, but we feel no pressure,” he explained to the Evening News. “The gap is now nine points, but that does not mean that we win the title. We will keep going. We have this advantage, but that says nothing. We are nine points in front, but the season is long and we have to play a lot of games. We must keep doing what we are doing every week.
“It’s an amazing feeling right now. I love it. You know before the season starts that it is a long season ahead. Then, after 14 games, you are top and it gives you confidence. It’s a very good feeling and I am happy with that. It’s most important that we try to play well every week. We are going to lose, or we’re going to draw. That’s normal. Other teams know what we want so a lot of them drop off and play very compact. We drew against Hibs and Dumbarton and thathappens in football. You can’t win every week, that’s impossible.”
Ozturk is a player who relishes high-octane fixtures. In fact, he came to Scotland in the summer looking for them. Saturday satisfied his lust. “It was a big game with a big atmosphere. It was one of the best I have experienced,” he said. “You know we are number one and they are number two, so it was the biggest game. Every week the atmosphere has been very good here but Saturday was more special. In Turkey I played in big games but not like this. When you are at the top of the league, it’s different.”
Being the team at the top carries a high price in aggression, as Hearts discovered at the weekend. Rangers’ Steven Smith received a red card for serious foul play on 21 minutes after lunging in recklessly on Callum Paterson. Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd could also have walked for similar challenges on Kevin McHattie and Brad McKay respectively.
Ozturk believes Boyd in particular was fortunate not to be ordered off. “I think it was a red card in the first half [for Smith] and I think it was a red card for Boyd in the second half as well. That was a hard tackle. I thought it was a red, but the ref gave a lot of yellow cards. That happens in football.
“It was a good game until the red card. I think it was a 50-50 game up until that point. We had to show patience and we tried to play the ball and wait. After the red card, it was an open game. Rangers dropped off a little bit and we could play the ball around. We did that very well. You must be patient in matches and we did that and we won 2-0. We coped well and we got the points.
“They played a few long balls and we knew that would happen before the game because they have good players up front who can use their head. I think we dealt with it very well. The atmosphere was fantastic. We knew Rangers must win but we won and we played a good game. Now this match is finished. Next week we play Celtic so we must look forward to that match now. We must keep doing what we are good at.”
The relentless quest for improvement stems from Robbie Neilson, Hearts’ head coach, and his assistant, Stevie Crawford. Their work ethic has rubbed off on a squad which now thinks nothing of regular double training sessions. The dividends are clear on the pitch as well as in the league table.
Hearts will remain nine points clear for the next fortnight whilst the Scottish Cup takes precedence over the league. After taking care of Rangers, their next visitors are from the other side of Glasgow. Celtic won 7-0 at Tynecastle in the same round of the same competition last year but will encounter a different Hearts side in Gorgie on Sunday.
“We will try to win this game also,” said Ozturk. “We lost against them at their stadium in the League Cup, but now we are at home. I think we have more chance here. We will try to play like we do in the league and I hope we can beat them.”