Ben Garuccio: Hearts have changed under Robbie Neilson - this style of play and training will suit me
There was a well-constructed Hearts move during the first-half of last Friday’s 5-0 friendly win over East Fife when left-back Ben Garuccio found himself as the furthest-forward man in maroon.
Had Garuccio’s deft chip from inside the penalty box over Jordan Hart been a fraction lower rather than going over the crossbar, it would have been memorable goal and it was more evidence that Hearts will attack all foes from all angles this season.
"The boys are already not letting me forget about it,” laughed Garuccio. “They're getting in to me for missing it! It's always good when you can get a little bit further up the pitch – that can be rare as a full-back – but it would've been better had it gone in."
It’s pleasing to see Garuccio in such high spirits considering what he’s been through while at Hearts. Entering the final year of his contract at Tynecastle, the Australian took the plunge back in 2018 and moved to Europe from his homeland to further enhance his promising career. It was cruelly halted in its tracks by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in March last year, sidelining him for nearly nine months. Once back, Hearts were at the foot of the Premiership, manager Craig Levein had been replaced by Daniel Stendel and the roof was starting to come in at Tynecastle. The only shining light was the emergence of young Aaron Hickey, who was blocking Garuccio's return at left-back.
The landscape has now changed. Levein and Stendel have left, while Hickey has agreed a transfer to Bologna. New head coach Robbie Neilson has come in and implemented a new training regime and a new style of play – which Garuccio is a massive supporter of.
"I'm really enjoying being fit again,” said Garuccio in an exclusive Evening News interview. “We had the lockdown and you don't play football for so long, I'm just enjoying training every day again, being back at it full-time. To be honest, the new coaching staff have come in and made training really enjoyable. It's a really good environment to be in so yeah, I'm really enjoying it.
"From day one you could see the change, even with Jig [assistant Lee McCulloch] and Gordy [coach Gordon Forrest]. The atmosphere they set when we came back, it made it a really happy place to be around and they basically try and make it as fun as possible to be training. Obviously you have to do the right things, but without putting so much extra pressure on us. The game already has so much pressure as it is, so it's nice to go into training, have a bit of a laugh but when it's time to work, you have to work. I think it's a good balance that you need to have and that's the best thing that managers have.”
Friday offered the opportunity to watch Hearts for the first time under Neilson and there was a clear style of play. The ball was kept on the deck, shuttled quickly from side to side. Wingers Jordan Roberts and Elliott Frear were utilised often and full-backs Garuccio and Michael Smith galloped forward in support. Hearts want to get bodies forward in a controlled way. They will see a lot of the ball this season in the Championship, but want to make sure they play football in a stylish manner. Too often under Levein and Stendel, there were complaints about the type of football Hearts play. Neilson’s philosophies get the thumbs-up from Garuccio.
"We want to keep the ball and play out from the back, being positive,” said Garuccio on Neilson's plans. “He's said he's not going to crucify us for trying to play out from the back, so I think that gives you that added bit of confidence when you know that's what the gaffer wants. Even if you try it, it's maybe not going to work and we might maybe concede the odd goal from trying to play out, but I think more often than not, you break that press and we get out and it's a much more controlled build-up to the game instead of obviously going long. That can be a little bit of hit and hope sometimes.”
Does being an attack-minded full-back suit Garuccio? "It's all I've ever known in Australia!” he exclaimed. “Coming over here, it's one of the things I had to adapt to. I hadn't hit many channel balls in my life before I came here. It's something I've had to learn, but that's part and parcel of coming to another country.”
The door is open this season for Garuccio to make the left-back spot his own. Aidy White is the only other recognised specialist for that role and while Neilson told these pages last week that he wants to reinforce that part of the team, Garuccio appears to have the shirt for now.
Even still, the former Adelaide United man says he hasn’t altered his approach much, just working hard to impress his new gaffer.
"I've just come back in, it's a new manager and coaching staff,” added Garuccio. “I'm now pretty familiar with the boys. At the end of the day, I'm doing the same things that I've always done. It's not as if I see it as, 'oh, Aaron's gone now so now I need to try harder'. I always give 100 per cent, I always try and get better every day. So far, I haven't had the easiest run at it with injuries and things like that and obviously the results last year weren't great. But yeah, it is a good opportunity. I'm training hard every day and just trying to show my best.”