Alim Ozturk’s Hearts future sits in the balance right now. He is out of the team and out of contract at the end of the season. Monday night at Hamilton is therefore a priceless opportunity for the Turkish centre-back to re-establish himself.
Igor Rossi will serve a one-match suspension at the SuperSeal Stadium – formerly known as New Douglas Park – and Ozturk is the obvious candidate to slot into defence alongside John Souttar.
Having managed just four appearances so far this season, two of which came as a substitute, the 23-year-old will be eager to seize the moment. He is frustrated at not playing more often and has had to deal with the added blow of seeing his captain’s armband given to Perry Kitchen permanently.
A solid display in Lanarkshire would make the correct impression on head coach Robbie Neilson. “Igor’s banned for the game so this is a chance for somebody to come in and stake a claim. That’s what I’ll say to them. If they come in and do well, then they’ll stay in,” Neilson told the Evening News.
“The guys who aren’t playing all get frustrated, but you want that because you want guys who are desperate to play. Ozturk and Prince Buaben have been eager to get involved. Bjorn Johnsen had to wait for his chance but he’s come in and done well. There are always people needing to wait for game time.
“Krystian Nowak has signed but not had a chance to play yet because the other players have been doing well. We have to have a decent squad who are ready to go and, when they get a chance, they take it.”
Nowak is even further down the queue than Ozturk. The Polish centre-back is still awaiting his Hearts debut despite signing a two-year contract in early August. Neilson is confident that, provided he bides his time, an opportunity will arise.
“It’s difficult for him. We have a decent group of centre-backs at the moment so he just has to bide his time in the under-20s and in training,” continued the head coach. “He will get a chance eventually. I don’t think he’s too frustrated. He understands the situation.
“When players are doing well, you have to bide your time and wait. When he gets his chance, he has to be ready. He’s been working hard and I’m pleased with him because he has a great attitude.
“He’s a good centre-half who can also play right-back. He’s comfortable on the ball, he’s got decent pace and is generally a steady player. When he gets a chance, he can definitely play at this level.
“He’s not long in the door so he needed time to adapt and he’s been doing well. He just needs to be patient.”
As well as keeping the first-team squad ticking over at Riccarton, Neilson has used the international break to discuss new contracts with those nearing expiry. Winger Sam Nicholson is a priority for re-signing, although he won’t play again until January after surgery on his knee.
“We’ve been having talks and speaking to the players. It’s something we’re trying to progress as we go along and hopefully we’ll get a couple of them tied up. We’ve spoken to Sam again about what we want to do,” explained Neilson.
Talks have also taken place with youth academy players seen as potential seniors of the future. “We’ve spoken to a lot of the younger ones as well,” continued Neilson. “We have a lot of young academy players who we want to come in more often, so there’s still a bit of work to get done.
“There’s quite a few. Angus Beith has signed for another year and has been doing well on loan at Stirling Albion. Liam Smith signed a new deal, Dario Zanatta has another year left after this one and he’s done well on loan at Queen’s Park.
“There are younger ones as well that we need to make a decision on regarding whether we think they’re going to be able to make it here or not. Callumn Morrison, Alistair Roy and Russell McLean are out on loan getting game time, which is good for them.”
The next few days will see focus firmly fixed on Hamilton. Hearts want to regain momentum after the international break and rack up points before the Ladbrokes Premiership begins a four-week winter shutdown at the start of January.
The aim between now and then is to climb the table from fourth and reach second to close the gap on league leaders Celtic.
“It’s been a wee bit stop-start recently and we haven’t had a chance to consistently play every Saturday. That’s been one of the frustrating things about it this season. We haven’t really had a chance to build momentum,” said Neilson.
“Now the games are coming up thick and fast as we get into December and hopefully we can hit our stride. Every footballer wants to play Saturday to Saturday and we haven’t managed to do that for a fair bit of time.
“We now have the chance to do that over the next few weeks. Then comes the January break, and then we go again after that.”