MOTIVATION within Alim Ozturk has never been stronger. Twenty months since joining Hearts, he is edging closer to leading the club into Europe in his first season as captain.
That alone isn’t enough. The Turkish defender is demanding an improvement in performances, starting tonight against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Ozturk offers the assertion that recent displays have slipped below the standards expected at Tynecastle. Part of his daily routine is setting an example and he is slightly concerned by what he sees. Two wins in the last six games isn’t reliable enough form to propel Hearts into the Europa League, although they returned to winning ways by beating Kilmarnock 1-0 at the weekend.
Their skipper knows the stakes are increasing with each passing week. Hearts are third in the Ladbrokes Premiership, with an 11-point cushion and 12 games left to play. Ozturk still pinches himself when recalling how his transfer to Scotland has manifested itself into a European tilt whilst wearing a captain’s armband inside two years. Having come this far, there is a burning desire within him to not only finish the job, but do so with a certain panache.
“When I came here, it was a club in the Championship. This was my choice,” he said in a candid interview. “I wanted to go to a club to play. I didn’t know Hearts was a big club like this but they were in the Championship. You are thinking: ‘Should I do this?’ You have invest in yourself to go higher up in football. I think I have the qualities but it was important for me to get more games. I was 21 when I came here and the biggest thing for me was to play regularly.
“When I arrived, we won every game at the start of the season. That was good for me. In some of the early games, it was hard for me when it got to 60 and 70 minutes. I hadn’t played a lot of games so it was difficult for me after eight or nine games. That’s the time when you feel the tiredness a little bit. We still kept going and, when we won the league, that was the moment for me. That was maybe the point for me to think it was the right choice. Now I am the captain here, that makes everything so much better.
“Two years ago, I could have stayed in Turkey and got more money. That wasn’t important for me. I wanted to invest in myself and I think this is a beautiful club for me to do that. It’s going really well. If you said to me when I came here: ‘You will be the captain next year’, believe me, I would say you were crazy. The gaffer chose me and I try to do my best to lead the team as well as possible. We have a big chance to go to Europe but there are still a lot of games to play. It would be fantastic to go into Europe with this club.
“If you look at our group, there is a lot of talent. What we are showing right now is not good enough. We know we can do better, and we have to do better. We will see what we do in the next few games. I think everybody is working hard, that’s the most important thing. On Saturday, we won 1-0 and kept a clean sheet. It wasn’t our best game but I’m happy with the result.
“After two defeats, you have to win to get the confidence back. We always have confidence but sometimes when you lose games it’s hard. The first half on Saturday wasn’t that bad but the second half was not good enough. We scored early in the game and the second half was just trying to keep the 1-0 score. Of course we tried to score but we hit the post and we missed another penalty. We made it hard for ourselves.”
They did indeed, particularly with two penalties saved by the Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald. Jamie Walker and Abiola Dauda were the culprits in maroon. Walker’s follow-up attempt hit the net to secure the three points but that hasn’t stopped debate raging in the dressing room about who should step forward if Hearts get a penalty tonight.
“Some guys are saying: ‘I will take the next one.’ You get that. A few of them are battling to take the next penalty and they are not shy to do that,” smiled Ozturk. “They want to be the next one. I take penalties but I let the strikers take them because it’s more important for them to score goals. I left the second penalty on Saturday because I saw Abi and Juanma both ready. Maybe I will take the next one, you never know. I took a penalty in Turkey so, if I have to do it, I will do.”
Focusing on the task at hand is occupying his mind far more at the moment. Hearts are in the midst of three successive home games which could potentially define their season. With the first one successfully done and dusted, Inverness this evening precedes Partick Thistle at the weekend. “This is a really, really important week for us. We’ve started well with three points. Now we have Inverness. We will try to take three points against them as well and keep going the right way. It’s important we keep going towards our target.”