Big interview: Conor Washington on Hearts injury, love for club and being trained again
Striker is back from injury and relishing chance to play under Daniel Stendel
Chatting to Conor Washington provides the kind of training-ground insight Hearts fans want. He offers intelligence on new manager Daniel Stendel’s methods, enthusiasm for coaching and meticulous attention to detail. All of which sounds encouraging for the second half of a season which has hitherto been catastrophic for the Edinburgh club.
Washington has trained under the German only four times since returning last week from three months out with a torn hamstring. Already he is impressed by the new figurehead. Stendel tries to coach every player at his disposal, according to the Northern Ireland forward. Training drills are regularly stopped because the manager wants to demand specific detail during a particular phase of play. Gradually, it seems standards are improving at Riccarton as Hearts try to lift themselves off the bottom of the league table.
Sunday’s display in the 1-1 draw with Aberdeen at Tynecastle Park proved players are responding. Washington played the final 14 minutes as a substitute, his first action since mid-September, and will continue his fitness work during the three-week winter shutdown. He has already seen enough from Stendel to get excited at the prospect of playing for him after the break.
The manager’s high-energy attacking style is perfect for the striker’s own hustle-and-bustle approach. “I think it will definitely suit me. I really like his ideas, he’s a very forward-thinking manager,” Washington explained to the Evening News. “He has some great thoughts on how we can improve as a club and how to help players in general. It’s great to hear those things and hopefully see them put into place. The table doesn’t lie, we are bottom of the league for a reason.
“We need to work on Sunday’s performance and take it forward but I am really looking forward to working under the new manager. He has given me a couple of pointers in the few days’ training I’ve had. It’s nice to be coached again. From his forward players, he wants high intensity and high pressing. Then he wants forward runs and, obviously, goals. At the moment, he is just bedding in his ideas. We are working on some patterns of play and the lads are starting to take that on board.
“His enthusiasm for the job is great. He wants to coach everybody. He is constantly stopping the training to point things out, saying: ‘I want this, I want that, I want this.’ He is very specific in terms of what he wants. There will be lads who can’t do what he wants, which is where January comes around because the manager is probably going to shake things up. As players, we have to try and prove we are good enough and can do exactly what he wants to stay in the team and stay at this club.”
Washington should be fine. Stendel will surely appreciate a forward with such industry. Hearts could certainly have used him over the last three months. “Getting back before the break was something I was aiming for. I had a small calf strain which set me back about ten days or I could have been back earlier,” revealed the 27-year-old. "I just wanted to get back and help the team as quickly as possible. It hasn’t been great the last few months, has it? That was my first thought. If I’d been even a little bit fitter against Aberdeen, I might have got on the scoresheet.”
He joked that his 14-minute cameo “felt like 45 minutes” but there are no mental concerns relating to the hamstring, thankfully. “Four days’ training is not a lot but they were good sessions and I feel in better shape than before I got injured. Now I want to make a positive impact,” said Washington. “I got the injury by jumping and extending my leg to try and bring the ball down. I didn’t do it when I was sprinting or I may have had some doubts. As long as I don’t try to karate-chop any balls in the air, I should be fine now. Everything else goes out of the window once you’re back on the pitch.”
Especially when you’re back on the pitch with a rousing welcome ringing in your ears. The reception Washington received replacing Ryotaro Meshino belied the fact he was making only his tenth appearance for Hearts. The lack of genuine attacking threat in recent months has been keenly felt by supporters and their gratitude at his recovery was loud and clear.
“If I’m honest, I’ve never felt at home so quickly at a club. I absolutely love it here,” said the player. “I love the city and I just want to do well for Hearts. The fans have been brilliant with the team and me personally. I felt I was starting to show the levels I can get to in the Motherwell away match in the Betfred Cup but then I got injured. It was so frustrating.
“I didn’t have much of a pre-season in the summer. I came in, trained one day and then played against Glenavon when we were away in Northern Ireland. I’ve just never been fit and ready to play. As a professional footballer, you just have to get on with it. This period now gives me a chance to get as fit as I’ve ever been. That’s my aim. I want to score the goals that get us out of this position.”
That is no mean task but Washington can sense morale lifting at Riccarton. Controlling large periods of the match against Aberdeen before Sean Clare’s red card was cause for further optimism.
“It definitely boosted morale,” he added. “The manager has come in and wanted to change a lot in a short space of time, which needed to happen and needs to happen going forward. It was a real battling performance against Aberdeen and we absolutely dominated the game. It’s criminal that we didn’t get three points but we have to be more clinical in both penalty boxes. That’s been a criticism thrown at us over the last couple of months. It’s something we need to shoulder and improve on.”
It could be argued that places more pressure on strikers to score goals. Washington does not feel under any strain, though. “No, definitely not. I love scoring goals. If anything, it just increases your desire to score the goals to help Hearts out of this situation,” he said.
“It’s difficult to take in what a tough period it’s been for the club. The fans have been excellent. They have really been put through the wringer in the last couple of months. To have their support against Aberdeen, even after losing the equaliser, was great. I think they could tell it was a Hearts performance they have come to expect. The lads have come to expect it as well but we just haven’t reached those levels of intensity. We did on Sunday and went on to dominate the game.”