Big interview: Perry Kitchen has no regrets over Hearts exit
Exactly one year ago tomorrow, Perry Kitchen captained Hearts to a 2-0 win over Rangers which took them second in the Scottish Premiership. He now finds himself embroiled in a Danish relegation battle, but the American has no regrets over his effective ousting from Tynecastle.
He asked for a transfer at the end of last season when it became clear he was not in head coach Ian Cathro’s plans. Stagnating at club level with a knock-on effect to his USA international prospects simply wasn’t an option. Cathro replaced Robbie Neilson following that victory over Rangers but clearly didn’t rate Kitchen. The Dundonian lost his job in August this year after Hearts’ humiliating League Cup exit.
By then, Kitchen was forging a new career with Randers in Denmark’s Superliga. He signed a two-year deal to move across the North Sea having reluctantly accepted he wouldn’t play under Cathro if he stayed in Edinburgh.
The contrast compared with 12 months ago is quite startling. From a lofty position in Scotland’s top flight and holding the Hearts captain’s armband, Kitchen is now fighting to help Randers stay in their league. They currently sit third bottom. The biggest, and most crucial, change for the 25-year-old is that he now plays regularly. Every week, in fact.
It was a move which had to be made for the sake of both his club and international career. “I wanted to stay in Europe. I came here in 2016 to try something new and my wife and I really enjoy the European lifestyle. Staying here was our priority,” said Kitchen in an exclusive Evening News interview.
“The situation at Hearts was I was out of favour, no secret there, so it was a goal of mine to get back playing again. That’s how this move transpired. Towards the end of last season, I didn’t feature in any of the games after the split. The message was written on the wall, you could say. Craig Levein [director of football] and everyone there were great regarding my wishes. It wasn’t a struggle at all.
“I really enjoyed my time at Hearts. Obviously the coaching change when Robbie left laid out a different path for me. Unfortunately, that’s how it goes sometimes. You just have to roll with it, move on and keep trying to grow as a player.
“It was a difficult situation. At that point, I was still the captain of the team so my role was just to have a positive mindset and not let my own situation disrupt how the team was going to perform. My job was still to lead and be a good example for the team. I would say I did a pretty decent job of that considering the circumstances.
“I don’t have any regrets with how I handled it. At the end of the day, he [Cathro] made his decision and whether I agree with it or not I have to respect it and move on.
“It was such a huge honour to captain a team like Hearts. I’ll always remember it. I learned new things as a captain because you have to do things in a different way. The fans and the club will always hold a special place with me.”
Kitchen might well have been alarmed when Randers changed coach just three months into his stay. The Icelander Ólafur Kristjánsson made way for Dutchman Ricardo Moniz, but the transition hasn’t affected the midfielder’s game time.
“There have been a lot of changes at Randers. We just had a new coach come in a few weeks ago so there are different things to get used to. You just take it as it comes. Change can always be unsettling but it’s been good so far and the team has been performing. Hopefully we’re on an upward trajectory now and headed in the right way.”
Three wins and a draw in seven games under Moniz so far hints at the kind of progress needed to steer Randers away from the Superliga’s basement. Avoiding the relegation play-offs is another task entirely. Come April in Denmark, the bottom eight clubs in the 14-team top flight are split into two mini leagues to face off with one another. The bottom two in each section are relegated.
Randers finished seventh last year before winning their relegation play-off section. “The results haven’t been ideal so far this season but we picked up a couple of good wins this month to get off the bottom, which is nice,” said Kitchen.
“Life off the field is great. We live in Aarhus, which is much like Edinburgh and a similar size. It has good culture and restaurants so we can’t complain. It’s the closest big city to Randers and the second largest city in Denmark after Copenhagen. There’s lots to do off the field.
“I’d say it’s a good level of football here, more tactical than MLS or the Scottish league. It’s definitely a calmer game here, whereas in Scotland it’s 100 miles per hour and it’s tough to play. Here, it’s a little more tactical and you get more time on the ball to pass it because somebody isn’t always in your face.
“Playing in a new league and experiencing a new style of soccer has been great. It’s been similar off the field. We’re experiencing a new culture and a new lifestyle here, so it’s been a total learning experience on and off the pitch.”
Might he progress further to a higher ranking European league?
“That’s certainly the goal, of course. There is a lot of work still to be done and a lot can happen. I’m keeping my options open but my aim is to progress my career. I want to experience bigger opportunities if they’re there.”
Staying in Europe is the priority for a man whose international career means everything. Typically, he must contend with another transition taking place across the Atlantic. “We did not qualify for the World Cup. The qualifying campaign was a bit crazy so [national coach] Bruce Arena resigned,” explained Kitchen.
“We currently don’t have a full-time coach but there is an interim coach, Dave Sarachan, who was Bruce’s assistant. It’s a big transition period with the national team just now. At this point, there isn’t much communication with them because no-one really knows who the head coach will be.”
Coaching changes don’t always work for everyone, as Perry Kitchen knows from experience. Provided he continues playing regularly in Denmark, the American dream will stay alive.