Adam Eckersley has described the Hearts dressing-room as the best he has ever been a part of in terms of unity and camaraderie.
The 29-year-old left-back became one of the old heads of a relatively young Jambos squad when he joined in August, but the confident Mancunian has bedded in perfectly to an already close-knit group.
Eckersley, who came through the ranks at Manchester United and then played for Royal Antwerp, Port Vale and Danish clubs Horsens and Aarhus, says with conviction that he has never experienced a team spirit like the one currently being fostered at high-flying Hearts.
“I expected big things from Hearts before I signed. It was a very calculated move to come here,” he said. “I knew a bit about Scottish football and that Hearts were a massive club and we were capable of having a season like we are now.
“But what has exceeded my expectations is that, of all the dressing-rooms I have been in, this is the most friendly. We have a very strong team spirit and I think that’s the difference. I don’t know why that is, maybe it’s because the squad is so young. There aren’t too many older heads in there, it’s just a very down-to-earth young squad and I think we gel really well with each other.
“The banter is good. I have been in a lot of dressing-rooms but this one is quite special. The wind-up merchant is James Keatings – he’s a little b******! You can’t turn your back on him for a second.
“There are never any problems in the dressing-room, there are no big egos. I have been in what I call selfish dressing-rooms where a lot of players don’t want the best for the guy in front of him, but this dressing-room is different.
“The manager is rotating the side every week and the players not playing are still happy for the ones who are. Even when players are not playing they are supporting the guy who is. I think that’s helping massively.
“If you are not all pulling in the same direction, things won’t work properly. It has to be a well-oiled machine and that’s what we’ve got here. Everyone is a team player. It’s all for one and one for all. We’re all working towards the same goal.”
The Hearts squad bonded further during their two-night Christmas jaunt to Manchester. “We had a great time away last weekend,” said Eckersley. “It was a good laugh. Before we went down there we had great team spirit and that has just made it 100 times better. Being from down that way I had my hand in organising it.”
Head coach Robbie Neilson, whose office is upstairs at the club’s Riccarton training base, explained recently that he tends not to go down to the dressing-room as he prefers his players to have their own time together away from the coaching staff.
“The gaffer and the coaches don’t venture down here all that often,” said Eckersley. “The only time they do is when they are coming down to training. They leave it to us. There are a few older heads who keep an eye on things. But apart from that they stay up in their office.”
Today’s match at home to Alloa sparks a busy period of three games in the space of week for the Championship leaders. However, with no game on Boxing Day, the team’s day off next week will be Christmas Day, a rare luxury for British-based footballers.
“The gaffer has given us Christmas Day off so it will be nice to get up and open the presents with the kids, then not have to get the gear on and head to training,” said Eckersley.
“In Denmark we had a winter break. We would finish on December 12 and you would get a month off so I was usually in Dubai at this time of year. But considering I didn’t play much football last year I am just happy to be playing and getting a full season under my belt.
“I can’t wait for the games to come. I’ll be making sure I look after what I am eating. There won’t be so many chocolates this Christmas to make sure I am ready for the games.”
At Hearts’ agm on Wednesday, director of football Craig Levein explained that he was delighted extra income from supporters’ spending had allowed the club to add a player of Eckersley’s mentality to act as a role model to the younger players.
“I would like to put myself in that bracket,” he said. “I am a winning type, I hate losing. I think they have got the mix of young and old in the dressing-room perfect. There are a lot of young players and then a few older heads to keep their feet on the ground and make sure they don’t get ahead of themselves.”