Soufian El Hassnaoui is adamant that he can still salvage his Hearts career.
The Dutch-Moroccan forward has endured an injury-disrupted 16 months at Tynecastle, and feels he has been unable to showcase his quality since arriving on a three-year deal in June 2014.
However, as he closes in on a return to action following three months out with knee ligament damage, the 25-year-old retains maximum belief that he will make a success of his time in Edinburgh.
“I still haven’t shown yet the player I used to be before I came to Hearts,” El Hassnaoui told the Evening News. “It’s hard, but it will come. I just have to keep working hard and my time at Hearts will come. I know that for sure.
“It’s probably three years ago since I was at my peak and playing regularly. That was with De Graafschap and I was very fit. I will definitely get back to that level. I have been working so hard on getting back to that. I am very optimistic.”
El Hassnaoui enjoyed his first action since sustaining his knee injury against Preston North End in July when he played the last half hour of the development team’s defeat by St Johnstone at Ochilview on Monday. He was encouraged to report no ill-effects.
“I feel fine, there is no pain,” he said. “It was just a half hour but you have to start somewhere. Fitness-wise I was okay. I’ve been pain-free for about three weeks and I’ve trained for two full weeks. The gaffer told me he just wanted me to play a half hour in my first game, just to get the feeling of playing again and check I was free of the injury. I felt good.”
El Hassnaoui is setting no timescale on his return but hopes to step up his comeback bid next week. “I don’t know exactly when I’ll play for the first team,” he said. “The plan is for me to start for the Under-20s next week and play longer than the half hour and look again at how I’m feeling after that. I’m training hard and I want to play as soon as possible, but it’ll be the gaffer’s decision when I come back into the team. I want to play for the first team obviously but I’m just happy to be out for the Under-20s, touching the ball again.”
El Hassnaoui had been hoping to hit the ground running this season after seeing his first campaign in Edinburgh effectively written off by two separate fitness issues. “I came back in towards the end of last season and scored two goals, so I was looking forward to this season starting, but then I got that stupid, unlucky injury [at Preston],” he explained. “My fitness was coming along nicely in pre-season but now I’ve pretty much had to do another pre-season. I didn’t need an operation – it’s just been training, training and more training to get the muscle back in my leg.
“The first six weeks I had a brace on, but after that it’s been hard training every day. I did the start of my recovery in Holland then I came back over here. I’m possibly a bit ahead of schedule which is nice, so hopefully I can get on a good upwards line now.”
El Hassnaoui insists he is not allowing the fact that almost half of his three-year deal has elapsed to influence his approach to his latest comeback bid. “I think you always have to try and show what you can do, so I don’t look at the length of contract I have,” he said. “That would just make it harder for you if you worried about when your contract runs out.”