AFTER playing in the Nou Camp and Bernabeu, you have to wonder what Miguel Pallardo thinks of venues like Indodrill Stadium and the Bet Butler Stadium.
When you’ve faced Messi and Ronaldo, Greig Spence and Colin Nish don’t quite compare. Then there is the unique Central Park in Cowdenbeath, which he will experience next week.
Pallardo is no snobby Spanish superstar, though. The midfielder has graced some of world football’s most salubrious venues but insists he came to Scotland to grow and develop as a footballer. He chose Hearts because he felt the philosophies of head coach Robbie Neilson and director of football Craig Levein mirrored those of clubs in his homeland.
The Edinburgh club hold a nine-point lead at the top of the Scottish Championship having implemented an intense training programme built on technique and ball retention. Riccarton has been something of a home from home for Pallardo in that sense, ignoring the winter frost on the ground and chill in the air.
He is impressed with the facilities and standard of play. Scotland’s second tier must have been a culture shock in some senses, however the 28-year-old feels comfortable in what he feels is a Spanish-type football team. Hearts are reinventing themselves after almost ten years of Lithuanian rule and Pallardo wants to grow with them. He doesn’t intend to let a bumpy pitch or ramshackle terracing get in the way.
“It is only important what happens on the pitch, not what is around the stadium. I don’t compare the Nou Camp with Alloa. I only compare the football,” he said, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “When I came here, I didn’t feel a big difference between the football or the training I did in Spain. Hearts train us to take care of the ball rather than just doing lots of exercises. I think this is equal to what happens in Spain.
“Other clubs use long passes and try to be physically stronger but Hearts are developing a type of Spanish style and I like that. I think I can contribute here with my experience at a high level. I came here to grow hand-in-hand with Hearts. It’s important for me to carry on developing here.
“Football is the same in any country – Spain, Scotland, everywhere – if you don’t give 100 per cent, any team can beat you. At the moment, Hearts are playing with a high intensity and I want to help keep this intensity.”
Valencia, Getafe and Levante are all on Pallardo’s CV and there was some surprise in September when he moved to the second division in Scotland at a peak time in his career. He couldn’t even get in Neilson’s team to begin with but his patience has been rewarded with a starting place in the last three matches. That will become four tomorrow against Queen of the South.
He has looked strong, composed, confident and technically well equipped in a holding midfield role. In short, typically Spanish. His experience was especially evident two weeks ago against Rangers at Tynecastle. Others around him lost control on a high-octane occasion but Pallardo remained unflappable. When you’ve held it together in front of 100,000 people in the Nou Camp, 17,000 raucous Scots aren’t likely to faze you.
He is no different during interview. Pallardo’s English is improving but he talks through an interpreter inside Tynecastle’s Gorgie Suite after another double training session.
“In Spain, there weren’t many weeks when we did double or triple sessions. Maybe when we start the season or after the Christmas break, but not at this stage in the season. I am feeling very fit with the programme Hearts have. I also think it is very important to control the food. The players eat at the academy and this can work better. It is helping me.
“I was waiting for my opportunity to play but in my mind the team was more important. Hearts were doing very well and, if the team is doing well, why are you going to change it? I had to work harder to be ready when I got a chance. All the supporters I have met have been really good. After the Rangers game, I went to have dinner with my family and some Hearts fans were there. They said congratulations and they were really happy.”
Hearts fans are happier now than they have been for some time. Their club is financially secure, top of the league and is being run sensibly by Ann Budge and her newly appointed board. Signing players of Pallardo’s calibre, or any other, was simply unthinkable 12 months ago due to administration and a signing ban. Now the future looks bright.
“My first impressions are really good,” said Pallardo. “Hearts have good facilities, like the buildings at the university [at Riccarton], and the club follows a good work ethic. My first impression was that Hearts are going to be a big club in Scotland.
“In our league at the moment, there are three or four big teams, tough teams. Hearts are trying to work every week to maintain a good level. I would compare Celtic with Real Madrid. They usually win the league or are near the top. Rangers are a step below, maybe like a middle club in the table in Spain.”
Supporters are entitled to ask how long this Spanish flirtation will last. The contract Pallardo signed in September expires at the end of the season. Is he of a mind to extend it?
“I feel really happy living in Edinburgh with my family,” he said. “The only objective in my mind is to carry on and help the club achieve their aims for the rest of the season. I feel I will stay here and have a good season. You never know what happens in the future but I am happy here.
“The first objective this year is to get promoted to the Premiership. Next year, there will be other objectives on the table and I will be happy to help Hearts get them.”