Prince Buaben has warned that Hearts will be a formidable proposition next season once their newest recruits are fully bedded in and acclimatised to the demands of battling at the top end of the Scottish Premiership.
The Tynecastle side need just one point from tomorrow night’s match at Inverness to be assured of a top-three finish and a return to European competition following a three-season absence.
They could yet climb into second place after Friday night’s 2-1 win over Aberdeen took them within nine points of the Dons with a game in hand and a trip to Pittodrie to come after the split.
Buaben has played a big part in the club’s remarkable post-relegation revival over the past two seasons and the midfielder anticipates further improvement next term as his newer team-mates continue to find their feet at a club with ever-increasing ambitions.
Of the 11 players that started for Hearts on Friday, six had never played in Scotland’s top flight prior to this season. In addition, Scots pair Don Cowie and John Souttar only joined Hearts in January, while Juwon Oshaniwa, the Nigerian internationalist, has evidently required time to find his feet after arriving from Israeli football last summer.
“We’ve got a fantastic team, but we just need a bit more time to understand each other,” Buaben told the Evening News. “We’ve got real quality in all positions and I think we’re getting better all the time. This is a totally different Hearts team to last year.
“But look at Aberdeen, they have played together for a few years and understand each other. If we can do that over the next few years, we will be in a very good position. It’s amazing how Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson keep finding new players to improve the squad. It seems like every player they’ve brought in has improved the squad and that means every player already here has to work even harder to keep their place. It is a good situation for the club and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”
Buaben pinpoints Juanma Delgado and Oshaniwa as two players with obvious potential to take their game to another level next season. Juanma has generally toiled to replicate his swashbuckling early-season form, but the Spanish striker appeared to have rediscovered his mojo when scoring a double against Aberdeen.
“Juanma has always been a good player for us, but I think he still doesn’t fully understand Scottish football,” said Buaben. “When you play in Spain, it is a totally different game and you don’t have to run as much. He needs more time to get used to Scottish football, but he’ll get better. People need to be patient with him but I think he will come alive next season and score more goals.”
Buaben is also adamant that Oshaniwa will come good after an underwhelming debut season in Scotland. The left-back produced one of his better performances in the 3-1 defeat by Celtic nine days ago before being sent off and missing the Aberdeen game through suspension. He is available to return for tomorrow’s trip to the Highlands and Buaben believes it is only a matter of time before he starts reproducing the form that made him an ever-present for Nigeria at the World Cup finals in Brazil less than two years ago.
“It’s been a strange season for Juwon,” said Buaben. “He’s a very good player, but he’s another one that doesn’t understand Scottish football yet. He is a player who always wants to pass the ball. Sometimes when he gets the ball, he needs to put it in behind but he doesn’t like playing the long ball, he always wants to pick a pass. Like Juanma, he needs time, but trust me, he will get better. You can see in training he is a good player, but he just needs to get used to Scottish football.”
Buaben is expected to be available for the trip to Inverness despite limping off late in the Aberdeen game after suffering from tight hamstrings.
Meanwhile, Hearts’ development team face Ross County at Ochilview tonight (kick-off 7.30pm). Jon Daly’s Under-20s are due to face Motherwell in the Little Big Shot Youth Cup final at Hampden on Wednesday, 27 April.