Alim Ozturk feels like he’s finally got to grips with Scottish football. The Hearts centre-back hails from Turkey and has Dutch education in the beautiful game, but he reckons he’s added a more robust element to his cosmopolitan style.
Ozturk freely admits that the physical nature of strikers in the Scottish Championship took him by surprise. When he arrived at Tynecastle last summer, all observers could see he had a cultured mind and could play football from the back, but some questioned whether his defensive style would work in the physical world of Scotland’s second tier. Recent performances have shown that he’s adapted accordingly.
The 22-year-old was one of Hearts’ best players in the 1-0 win over Livingston last Saturday. He was up against one of the league’s most direct and aggressive strikers in Jordan White, yet Ozturk more than matched him in the air and dealt with the dark arts of Scottish strikers such as backing in and wayward elbows. That’s down to the Turk working on his game and “acclimatising” to his new surroundings since his move to the Capital from Trabzonspor.
“I feel I’ve improved defensively,” Ozturk said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “In Scotland, it’s far more physical. At the start here, it wasn’t that I found it too hard, but I had to acclimatise, get used to how the game is in Scotland. It’s very different to Holland and Turkey. Now that I’ve played more than 20 games in this country, I feel like I’m getting used to how the game is played. I feel good right now.”
Ozturk reckons that, as a back four, Hearts are becoming more solid. “Right now the back four is really good – it doesn’t matter who plays in it,” he said. “If we keep a clean sheet, we know we are going to score. That’s why it’s important we don’t concede goals, because if we can keep their score to zero, we know we are going to win.
“We also have a good goalkeeper in Neil Alexander. He has a lot of experience and he talks a lot to the defence. We are still young, so it’s good to have him behind us. He may be older, but he’s not like a father figure – we can still have a joke with him, with respect of course. He’s a good guy to have around.”
Hearts now lie 20 points clear at the top of the Championship due to their resolute defence and the fact they can score goals at will. Ozturk knows that Hearts weren’t at their best against the league’s bottom club, but was just happy to secure all three points, especially as they were playing Livingston twice in a week and had to deal with the fall-out of Jason Talbot’s head-high tackle on Sam Nicholson during Hearts’ 3-2 win in West Lothian.
“It was really tough match, but we knew it was going to be,” continued Ozturk. “The most important thing is that we took the three points and it doesn’t matter how we do it.
“There was maybe a bit of aggression from the last game, but it’s a bit strange to play the same team two weeks in a row. But we won both games and that’s vital. That was our goal and that’s what we’ve done.
“What happened with Sam, I was pretty angry about that. After the tackle I went up to the referee and, well, we didn’t have a fight, but we had a big discussion. He gave me a yellow card for what I said, but the reason was because I saw the tackle. I saw the truth of what happened. I was angry, but that guy, he couldn’t play on Saturday, so that helped. It’s also not all about him so we had to forget. These things happen in football. Sam’s okay too, so it’s fine.”
Ozturk also leapt to the defence of team-mate Callum Paterson on Saturday after he took a shoulder in the face from Livi defender Declan Gallagher. Ozturk admits he can’t help but watch his fellow Jambos’ back.
“There was one moment with Callum Paterson,” Ozturk explained. “He was lying on the ground, White walked over to Callum and said something to him ... I know it’s stupid because I take a yellow card again, but I couldn’t hold myself back. It’s my team-mate, so that’s the reason I have to get involved.”
Saturday’s win takes Hearts one step closer to the title and now observers are starting to predict where they might clinch the league. You won’t find anyone in the Tynecastle dressing-room doing so, though.
“We’re not focused on anyone else – just ourselves,” added Ozturk. “We don’t look at the fixture list, like the fans do, and think about winning the title at Ibrox or Easter Road. We look just week after week, and next week it’s Queen of the South away. It’s just about winning that match and seeing where the next one takes us.”