Big interview: Osman Sow reveals Hearts reunion at MK Dons
You can imagine the party welcoming Osman Sow to MK Dons. Old Hearts pals reunited; Robbie Neilson, Stevie Crawford, sports scientist John Hill and video analyst Alex Threapleton all toasting Sow's return. Their bond formed in Edinburgh transcended across Europe and into Asia before Sow rejoined the pact in Milton Keynes last month.
The former Tynecastle striker wasted no time establishing himself with the winning goal on his debut, a 1-0 victory over Gillingham. There is something nostalgic about a reincarnation of the old Wimbledon using a bustling 6ft 4in target man. Sow is more than just a physical specimen, though, as Neilson and his buddies knew fine well.
When China’s new three-foreigner rule forced the giant Swede to leave Henan Jianye permanently, Neilson was on the phone like a sales agent offering a new life in leafy Buckinghamshire. Sow agreed to a two-year deal after a quick bit of research, tempted by familiar faces from Scotland and a second chance to make an impact in England.
He came to Hearts from Crystal Palace in 2014 as an unknown commodity. Injuries hindered him in London but he thrived to become a fans’ idol in Edinburgh before leaving for China in a £1 million-plus deal in February 2016.
He stayed in touch with Neilson as the manager decamped from Tynecastle to Stadium MK with several of his backroom staff. After a brief loan in the United Arab Emirates, the prospect of another try at England beside good friends was too good for Sow to refuse.
“It was a call from Robbie which started it. It was a good conversation,” recalled the player in an exclusive Evening News interview. “When the opportunity arose to come back and work with Robbie, Stevie, Hilly and Alex, I just got the feeling that this is my opportunity to do something in England.
“I got a really good feeling from Robbie at Hearts. It was mostly good memories there. I was just happy to come back to Britain and give this a go.
“Robbie explained about MK Dons’ ambition, about their good stadium, about him, Crawford, Hilly and Alex all being there. It just felt good. I liked the club’s ambition. I looked at their stadium online and it was great. I enjoyed working with Robbie at Hearts so it felt right. I jumped at it. I got there and it was just happy faces.”
Even happier on Friday night after a 2-0 win away at arch-rivals AFC Wimbledon – the club founded by fans who refused to tag along when the original Wimbledon left London in 2003 to move 75 miles north and rename themselves MK Dons.
“It meant a lot to both clubs,” said Sow. “I was told about the history and everything. It was nice to go there and win. It made everybody happy. Hopefully we can kick on from this now.” The rivalry has a different historical background but Sow savoured a familiar feeling as the victor in a British football derby once again. Similar to Hearts beating Hibs? He bursts into laughter. “Yes, definitely.”
MK Dons endured a difficult start this season, not helped by injuries to key players like Peter Pawlett, Kieran Agard, Ethan Ebanks-Landell, Joe Walsh and Sow himself. Neilson’s side have recovered to drag themselves towards their target – the Sky Bet League One play-off zone.
“It’s quite similar to Scotland – every game is competitive,” explained Sow. “It’s a tough schedule with so many games [46 league matches before play-offs and cups] but I’m enjoying it. It’s physical but every day I’m feeling better.
“I’m glad I made this move. I had a little injury but I’m over that now. I hadn’t played games over the summer so I came here a little bit late and missed pre-season. I have a little bit of catching up to do but I’m feeling better each day.
“The league is very competitive but I think we have a really good chance to do something. We didn’t have the start we wanted but lately we’ve picked up more points. Getting injured players back has helped so we just need to believe in what we’re doing.”
It might seem strange at first glance seeing such a capable striker approaching his peak years – Sow is now 27 – choosing the third tier of English football to further his career. After experiencing the Chinese megalopolis Zhengzhou and the searing Arabian heat, Sow craved the intensity of British football again.
“It was a different experience in China and UAE but I believe every experience is a good experience. It’s hot over there and the football is played differently. The tempo is not as intense as here but I enjoyed it.
“Only three foreigners can play in the Chinese Super League now, so the others have to sit in the stand all the time. I like to play football so, when this rule came in, we tried to make something happen and get a move.”
He may momentarily rethink his decision visiting the likes of Oldham’s Boundary Park in mid-winter. Then again, he is from Sweden. Icy winds and freezing temperatures aren’t exactly alien to him and his footballing style could well be best suited to northern Europe.
“I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I enjoy British football because it’s fast and aggressive,” he said, adding that Hearts encapsulated much of what he likes.
“I just enjoyed the atmosphere at Tynecastle. We won a lot of games in the Championship, and again in the Premiership. I enjoy winning. The supporters were just amazing with me and everybody working at the club were nice people. I’m very thankful for the fans’ support I got there. I watch Hearts’ results and I wish them the best.”
His first highlight in maroon remains his biggest. “The Rangers goal I would say was the best. It was my first competitive game for Hearts, it was the winner in the last minute, so it was a great start to my life at Hearts. That goal meant a lot at that moment.
“When we secured promotion, it was also a good feeling. Most of my memories are good ones. I only have a few bad ones.”
Which tees up the next question nicely. What was the worst? “The penalty miss at Celtic was a difficult one. I’m thankful for that experience now because I think you develop more from your bad experiences than your good. I wasn’t thankful at the time but now I realise it happens. I think everybody had something to say about it at the time. The score was 1-0 and that would’ve made it 1-1 and brought us back into the game.”
His departure from Gorgie was abrupt early last year. “It just came from nowhere. I just wanted to finish the season with Hearts and see what happens. China came up and I just had to take it. I enjoyed my time there and I was quite happy to leave with Hearts receiving something for me. They helped me a lot and gave me the chance to enjoy my football.”
Rumours of a return to Tynecastle were rife for a while during the transfer window, but Sow was already being teed up as MK Dons’ marquee summer signing. “I didn’t speak to Hearts,” said the striker. “I was speaking to Robbie and I had a few conversations with him. That was it, really. I kept in touch with Robbie a few times when I was in China and UAE.
“I like English football and I think, coming back from Asia, this is a perfect platform for me. I want to get as far as possible. I’m working with people I know so I’m trying to make the most of every day and every game.”
A town with a surfeit of roundabouts, it’s easy to get lost in Milton Keynes. Osman Sow seems to know where he’s going. Familiar faces around him certainly help.