As Alim Ozturk has just learned, to his benefit, that age is rarely a major concern when it comes to selecting a Hearts captain these days. Gary Locke was handed the armband as a 20-year-old two decades ago, while, in more recent times, Christophe Berra was made captain aged 22 and Danny Wilson landed the honour at 21.
Despite being one of the younger players among those likely to start regularly for Hearts this season, the 22-year-old Ozturk has continued this trend after being selected by head coach Robbie Neilson – himself a former Jambos skipper – to lead the team on their return to the Scottish Premiership. The Turkish centre-back has proven a popular choice among supporters and is relishing the extra responsibility which has been placed on his shoulders.
“I am still 22 but I feel I have a lot of experience for my age from playing in Turkey, Holland and now Scotland,” he explained. “I’ve had a few good captains and you always pick little things up from them that can make you a better player. When you are young you think about a lot of difficult things so it helps when you have a captain who has played a lot of football, knows the game and is able to help you. That is what I want to do as well.”
As any members of the media who have had the pleasure of dealing with him over the past year will testify, Ozturk is an articulate and level-headed young man. Despite his amiable demeanour in conversation, though, he has shown Neilson both on the field and at the training ground that he possesses the character and mentality required to lead a Hearts team with big aspirations for the upcoming season. Supporters, still savouring his stoppage-time wonder goal against Hibs nine months ago, need no convincing of his credentials to captain their club.
“My role is to lead the team,” he said. “We have a lot of young players and I hope to help them as well. I will have to do a lot of organising and extra duties off the field at Riccarton. I went to a few of those meetings last season so I have an idea what is involved.
“If you see my style and how I play, I’m aggressive anyway and I love to help my team-mates. I need to do it more now and that’s not a problem for me.
“A captain always has more responsibilities. Last year sometimes I’d get what I would call a stupid yellow card. If there were hard tackles on my team-mates I would go to the referee and stuff like that. I need to be more calm now. Robbie didn’t say that to me, but I know it’s something I have to think about now. He said I have more and more responsibility and that he believes in me, which gives me more confidence.
“I think it will bring out the best in me. The relationship with the fans is important and it will help me, but it’s not all about that. You need to be good with the players as well.”
Ozturk has no problem being one of the more vocal players in the team as he feels dishing out orders and advice comes naturally to him. He believes Hearts will benefit from the fact that his recently-recruited defensive partner Blazej Augustyn and goalkeeper Neil Alexander are equally loud and keen to ensure on-field organisation.
“I am loud in training as well,” said Ozturk. “I don’t like to lose, even on the training pitch. I want to win always and I will show that on the pitch. I didn’t moan so much last season because we won a lot. We will probably lose more games this season than we did last year so it will be my job to help the team deal with that.
“It will help us that Blazej is loud and vocal as well and likes to organise. Blazej is a great transfer, I think. He has great experience. That helps us a lot as well. We need that because we have a young team and we need experienced players. Neil Alexander is also important so that we can have a strong base to the team. I’m not the loudest, but I can be loud when I need to. Neil is probably the loudest, but he needs to listen to me now! No, he has great experience and he helps us all. It’s good to have him behind us.”
Ozturk saw his predecessor, Wilson, lift the Championship trophy in his last act as before departing for Rangers. He is keen to experience the sensation of collecting silverware as a captain for himself. “I didn’t think at the time that I’d like a bit of that because everybody was just happy to win the league, but now, as captain, I am thinking that way,” said Ozturk. “It will be hard but it’s an ambition, maybe even a dream of mine now because you’re the first one who gets to lift the trophy up. It’s in my mind now. The first thing for me is to help my team-mates though. Danny was a really good captain last year – he helped me a lot in my first year.
While he has a duty to represent all his team-mates, Ozturk is particularly concerned with the wellbeing of his close friend and house-mate Soufian El Hassnaoui. The forward had his first season at Tynecastle written off by fitness problems and suffered a knee injury last weekend at Preston which will rule him out for four months.
“I am really sick for him,” said Ozturk. “It was so hard for him last year, being injured during pre-season and he worked so hard to come back. To get an injury like this, it is really hard. But he will come back stronger. He is a smart guy and has a lot of experience, he knows how to cope and come back from this. If you even get injured for six weeks, you think ‘why me?’ but he has a much more serious one. I will do everything I can as captain and as his flat-mate to help him – that is my job as well.”