The most eagerly anticipated second tier in Scottish football history has arrived. Weeks of excitement, expectancy and impatience about a Championship involving Rangers, Hearts and Hibs are over.
A marquee opening weekend starts tomorrow when four matches take place including Hibs against Livingston. That is followed by Hearts’ visit to Ibrox 24 hours later.
Despite all the hope and promise surrounding the new season, the perennial carping and cynicism within Scottish football still lurks beneath the surface. Prince Buaben, the Hearts midfielder, has been subject to it.
He joined the Edinburgh club on a one-year contract last month but has spent a fair part of the intervening period fielding questions about why he is not playing at the top level.
The 27-year-old is fully charged, ready to begin a new chapter of his career and is certain to start in midfield against Rangers. Yet he is still hearing people asking why Hearts and why the Championship.
“People say I need to prove a point at my age, but I didn’t come here to prove any point,” said Buaben, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I just came here to help the team get up. They belong in the Scottish Premiership so I want to do well for them and hopefully they can get promotion.
“People have said I can do better than coming to the Championship in Scotland. They keep asking me why I came to the Championship. I just tell them it’s not because of any reason other than playing football and enjoying football again. Hopefully Hearts can go back up and then we’ll see what happens.
“Football is the same everywhere you play. Obviously the Premiership is a higher standard but, if you look at the Championship this season, I think it’s going to be better than the Premiership. Playing for Hearts against teams like Hibs and Rangers will be amazing.”
Clearly, Buaben isn’t fazed by the sceptics. He remains positive about the season ahead with Hearts hoping to mount a serious title challenge. The work of head coach Robbie Neilson and director of football Craig Levein has left him mightily impressed so far.
A main attraction is the chance to play a flowing passing game under Neilson. Buaben believes he can help dictate games with old friend and colleague Morgaro Gomis beside him in central midfield, although Hearts face an intense opening test against Rangers.
“Since I’ve come here, everything has been so well organised. It’s very professional,” he continued. “This is probably one of the most organised clubs I’ve been with. I’m happy with that and I enjoy it here.
“Credit to the gaffer, he wants to pass the ball and play football the proper way. That’s really good for the team. With the players we’ve got, we can do what he wants. We can keep the ball and just play our own game.
“Everyone is looking forward to the first game so it should be a good game. I’ve played a few games there. It’s a good stadium with a good crowd and it’s always exciting to play there. You need to go there and work hard to win.”
Another figure who influenced Buaben’s decision to join Hearts was Larry Kingston. A fellow Ghanaian, Kingston spent three and a half years at Tynecastle between 2007 and 2010 and became a close friend of Buaben, who played with Dundee United at that time. Both have represented Ghana at international level and their chats often centred around Hearts.
“I knew Larry because we played in the same national team. I used to speak to him all the time and I played against him. I think he is a very good player,” explained Buaben. “He used to tell me how good a club this was. Every time he spoke about Hearts he was positive about the club.”
For Buaben, the only marginal negative since he arrived at Riccarton has been his own fitness. He admits he is still a week or two away from optimum condition having begun a trial period with Hearts in early July after pre-season training commenced. He is catching up fast. “I’m getting there slowly. Hopefully, in a week or two, I’ll be fully match-fit,” said the player. “I have to put the effort in every day at training so that I can get my fitness back very soon.
“I always try to improve my fitness because it’s important for me that I’m ready before the season starts. I feel good now. Three or four weeks ago, I’d have told you I was way behind. Now I’m way better and, hopefully, in the next one or two weeks I’ll be fine.”
A smile appears when he is asked if Neilson’s regular double training sessions have helped.
“I don’t think anyone likes double sessions but that’s a part of the game.
“You have to get on with it. Pre-season is over now so we have to look forward to the games. We are focused on winning matches.”
Regardless of what questions anyone may put to him, Buaben is thoroughly convinced he made the correct decision to join Hearts – both on a personal and professional level.
“I had a few offers from England after I left Carlisle United. The main reason for me joining Hearts was because of my son, Prince Junior. He is three and lives with his mum in Dundee and I wanted to be close to him.
“Also, I came here because of Craig Levein. He told me what he wanted and then I spoke to the gaffer [Neilson] and he was really interested in me as well. I felt I could come here and play my game for Hearts and that’s the only thing I want to do, starting on Sunday.”