Soufian El Hassnaoui waited three long months to make an impact at Hearts. On Sunday, a first goal on his first start helped banish the frustration of battling all summer to recover from groin surgery.
The 5-0 win over Livingston included glimpses of the striker’s true potential, and there is more to come as he gets fitter.
It was way back on June 16 that El Hassnaoui signed a three-year contract to join Hearts, becoming the third of an eventual 12 new signings by head coach Robbie Neilson. He arrived as an unknown but, with Holland’s De Graafschap and Sparta Rotterdam on his CV, had clearly enjoyed a typical Dutch footballing education.
The groin injury ensured he would not be available quickly. Three substitute appearances against Dumbarton, Queen of the South and Celtic in recent matches eased him into Scottish football gradually. Sunday saw him click into gear. “I’m very happy with how my first start went,” said the 24-year-old. “I’m delighted to score my first goal, definitely. It took a while. It’s taken patience and hard work. Sometimes I was frustrated but it feels good now.
“I need to get sharper. I’m not 100 per cent. I have to play more games to get that but I will be fine once I get a run. It was great to score against Livingston, but more importantly we got three points. The game was good but it could have been better. We had a lot of chances and should have scored more. Now we look forward to the next game against Queen of the South, which is the most important.”
El Hassnaoui endured a difficult time after arriving in Edinburgh. Adapting to a new country and being unable to prove himself to Hearts after a groin operation in May left the player exasperated at times. “I have had friends and family over at times who helped keep me positive when I was injured and I’m also living with Alim Ozturk,” he explained.
“It was difficult because it took a while and I was almost on the pitch but would then suffer another setback. A footballer only wants to play and it’s frustrating but you have to focus every day and work hard to get back. I did that and it was good to be back.”
Competition for attacking places is fierce in the new-look Hearts squad. El Hassnaoui has Osman Sow, James Keatings and Dale Carrick vying with him for striking roles, whilst Sam Nicholson, Billy King, Jamie Walker and Jason Holt play in the attacking midfield areas where the Dutch- Moroccan can also operate.
His primary aim is to form an understanding with Sow up front. Both players scored at the weekend in a game which saw Hearts move six points clear of Rangers at the top of the SPFL Championship. “I think Osman and myself can strike up a good partnership,” he continued. “We showed that at times on Sunday, but it can be much better. It was our first game together. He’s big and strong, sharp and fast and I can play around him so it’s got potential.”
Rangers’ defeat to Hibs at Ibrox on Monday was then an added bonus for everyone at Tynecastle. “We only focus on our games and not on Rangers. We need to win. We can’t worry about Rangers every week,” stressed El Hassnaoui. “Of course it’s good if they drop points, but the most important thing is that we win our next game and, if we can do that, then it can be a good season.
“In Holland the people know about Rangers and Celtic and I watched a few of their games when I was growing up. I had one friend in the stand for the game on Sunday but my family will come over for another game, possibly for the derby. My brother will definitely come. They were on holiday for the last derby but they will come for the next one.”
Ozturk, another newcomer to Scotland, is proving a useful flatmate for El Hassnaoui. Both have similar backgrounds having grown up in Holland and share the same philosophies on how football should be played.
Neilson has been keen to foster strong camaraderie within the dressing room at Riccarton and help his players bond. Socialising is done as a group, which also seems to be beneficial on the field of play. Although Hearts are sitting top of the league, are favourites for the title and the team everyone wants to beat, their players are telling anyone who will listen that they don’t feel under undue pressure.
“It’s good living with Alim. I knew him a bit from Holland. He went to Turkey and I stayed in Holland. Now we’re living together. I do most of the cooking – I’m older! Pasta is my speciality,” laughed El Hassnaoui. “It makes it easier for me to settle in with me staying with Alim. If you are alone it’s more difficult. We can help each other. We go out for dinner sometimes. You have to. If you stay at home you’d go crazy. We go out as a group sometimes but a lot of the time we talk about football. You always talk about where you can improve.
“Sometimes it is good to switch off but on Sunday, for example, we spoke about what went well and what could be better. We are a fresh group, a young group, and we can handle the pressure. If you can’t handle the pressure, then you can’t be the champions. I think it’s going well.”