He may have been on the pitch for little more than 26 minutes in Saturday’s stalemate at Dumbarton, but that small taster was enough for Hearts striker Soufian El Hassnaoui to afford some new-found respect to Scottish football.
The 24-year-old has endured a frustrating spell on the sidelines since joining Robbie Neilson’s regime in June on a three-year deal from Dutch second-tier outfit Sparta Rotterdam, an operation on his groin prior to signing for the Tynecastle club resulting in the Dutch-Moroccan frontman being put through his own rehabilitation programme during pre-season. Neilson himself had been quietly optimistic El Hassnaoui would have been available to make his competitive debut in last month’s first Edinburgh derby of the season, a match Hearts won 2-1, but always stressed he would not rush the player’s recovery in his bid to regain full fitness.
Despite being an unused substitute in both the League Cup second-round triumph over Stenhousemuir and the 4-1 league thrashing of Falkirk, the Hearts supporters finally got to see their man make his competitive debut at the Bet Butler Stadium against Ian Murray’s part-time Dumbarton three days ago.
And, after revealing that he believed the Scottish game to be more akin to a sport played by Andy Murray, El Hassnaoui says he has been pleasantly surprised by what he has seen so far.
“Back in Holland we say Scottish football is like tennis!” El Hassnaoui told the Evening News. “A lot of long balls, but I think we especially are trying to play the game in the right way. At Tynecastle we’ve played some very good football this year so far and our attacking play has been a standout, so the standard has certainly been a lot better than I thought, so I am happy.”
El Hassnaoui, who also had a five-year stint with De Graafschap after graduating from the club’s youth academy, admits it has taken a lot longer than he had hoped in pulling on a maroon jersey since putting pen to paper in the Capital three months ago.
“It’s been very difficult,” he explained. “I was almost fit to go and then it took longer than normal, which was really frustrating. When I came back I had some small pains, so I didn’t want to take the risk. You watch training and then the boys playing matches and that’s hard – it’s very difficult for a football player to take. But you have to work for it and now I am fit so I’ll be okay. I feel completely fine after coming on at the weekend there, so that is pleasing.”
Although a 0-0 draw with the Sons was not the outcome the player who represented Morocco at the London Olympics two years ago had wished for, El Hassnaoui was content just to get some minutes out on the pitch.
“I’m happy to have played as it has taken a while, but we are obviously disappointed with the result,” he said. “It was difficult to play on the floor as the pitch was very sticky, so the normal way to play for us was not possible. But even then we have to win. We gave everything, so I don’t think you can blame any of the squad. Even in the Dutch second league you always have a big stadium to play in with fans all around the sides.
“But it doesn’t matter, we went to Dumbarton looking to get the three points, but we couldn’t make it happen.”
Now that El Hassnaoui has had a taste of things, he is eager for more minutes to come his way under Neilson and will be doing all he can to convince his new manager he has what it takes as a striker in the club’s bid to earn promotion back to the Premiership at the first time of asking.
However, with team-mates Osman Sow, James Keatings and teenage sensation Sam Nicholson all having chipped in with goals so far, El Hassnaoui appreciates the difficulty he faces in securing a starting berth.
“It’s always difficult to get into a team who are first in the league, but I am working hard to get fitter so I’m there to score goals and help get some assists too.
“If I do that then it will be the coaches who make that decision whether to play me or not and I have to accept that. The boys have started really well up front, so I know it will be difficult.
“The coaches are training us hard to make sure we are fitter than the other teams and I think we are. But I know I can still be sharper and that is now my next goal.”
With Rangers closing the gap on the Jambos to just one point at the top of the Championship, not to mention city rivals Hibs making some inroads into climbing back up the table after their 3-2 weekend victory over Cowdenbeath, El Hassnaoui appreciates the importance of keeping their main challengers at bay.
He said: “Rangers are a good side, but we are also. Of course it is important to keep a gap if you can, but we’ve still got to play Rangers another three times this season.
“We’ve just got to fight 100 per cent every game and if we can do that then I think we will be able to stretch our lead at the top. There are some big games ahead for us but with the start we’ve had, I think we can do well. There’s a long way to go.”
Despite not contributing as much as he would have liked to in Hearts’ first season outwith the top flight in 31 years, the 6ft forward revealed he has adapted well to his new surroundings.
He added: “The city is different and not as big as Amsterdam or Rotterdam. But Edinburgh is nice, the people are friendly, so I like it here.”