Bjorn Johnsen: Tough last month but I’m ready to shine for Hearts

Bjorn Johnsen, left, laid on a fine assist for Sam Nicholson. Pic: Greg Macvean
Bjorn Johnsen, left, laid on a fine assist for Sam Nicholson. Pic: Greg Macvean
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One flick of Bjorn Johnsen’s heel produced the class Hearts fans had waited a month to see. FIFA’s delay in clearing the Norwegian’s transfer left the entire Tynecastle support base frustrated, not to mention the player himself. Signs are he could be worth the wait.

Johnsen’s delightful backheel into Sam Nicholson’s path was one of many highlights in Hearts’ 5-1 destruction of Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Don Cowie stood out with two goals and two assists as captain for the day, Nicholson himself scored twice, and Conor Sammon struck during his finest performance in maroon to date.

Johnsen was the man supporters wanted to see, however. All 6ft 5in of him. Pre-match news that FIFA had finally granted an international transfer certificate [ITC] for the striker’s move from Bulgaria heightened anticipation four weeks since he signed a three-year Hearts contract.

The ITC saw him let loose on ICT. He started on the substitutes’ bench and emerged to replace Sammon on 74 minutes. Within four minutes, he was an idol. He received Arnaud Djoum’s pass and instinctively backheeled the ball through to Nicholson to score Hearts’ fourth goal.

The immediate impact in a foreign league hints at a player who could become every bit as popular as his predecessor, Osman Sow. The public adulation for the 24-year-old was certainly welcome. CSKA Sofia’s claim that he had a contract with them led to a longer-than-expected wait to begin his Hearts career after leaving Litex Lovech. It is now off to a very positive start. A backheeled 
assist isn’t a bad way to begin.

“It was the only way I could do it. I couldn’t turn,” laughed Johnsen. “I had to just give it to Sam, he was yelling at me. I wanted to keep it simple but I sometimes you have to do that. I had my back to Sam and couldn’t turn so I had to give him the ball that way, or give it back to Arnaud [Djoum].

“I tried it and it worked. 
Maybe another time it won’t work. I’m really just happy to be in the team. We’re going to push for the top and I think we’ll have a good partnership up front whether I’m starting or Conor’s starting.”

He conceded that the last month has been tough. “I was patiently waiting. It’s been hard to get through it. You have to stay positive, keep your confidence up and just wait. My dad helped me a lot. I have two brothers and he’s always been that rock for all of us. It puts a smile on his face seeing me here playing for this club.

“I’m not really surprised at the dispute but I’m disappointed they [CSKA] would do that. Why would they do that? There are laws and that’s the way things go. You can’t just fight because you think your opinion is better than someone else’s. There’s always doubts in your mind [that the transfer won’t go through] but my dad and the club helped me through that. They kept me calm and focused on training, getting ready to do what I did against Inverness.”

Johnsen was waiting on his girlfriend to do her nails on Friday afternoon when Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, called with news that FIFA had cleared his move. He then prepared to play in the fifth different league of his career, after spells in Norway, Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria.

“The tempo is high here. That’s something new since I’ve been playing in Spain and Portugal. It’s more like the Europa League there, much slower,” he explained. “I’m just getting used to the tempo just now. It was easier to walk into it rather than get pushed into a huge situation with big expectations from the club.

“Moving around has helped me because I’ve learned four different languages – Portuguese, Spanish, Norwegian and English.

“I’ve learned different styles of play and how different coaches play. I understand how to adapt quickly, as I have to here in Scotland. It’s helped me grow up. I’m getting to the age where I’m older than the younger guys coming in. There’s always going to be the 16-year-olds who think they’re Ronaldo, but I’ve learned a lot in Europe.

“It’s hard for an American or Norwegian player to play outside their countries. Where I come from, people go to college until they’re 23 and then they go into the MLS or somewhere else. I didn’t go to college. At 18, I chose to go to Norway. You have to take your own path and I think the way I went was the best for me.

“I played hockey and football as a kid. We’ve always been pushed to play football in my family. My dad played and we used to watch him.

“In America, there are so many different sports – basketball, football, baseball etc. I was interested in watching the Premier League. We had Setanta Sports so I watched Rangers and Celtic as well. I’ve seen games in Scotland when I was growing up. I’m my dad’s double. He’s 6ft 4in, so I’m the same as him.”

Johnsen might have been 
surprised by Inverness’ meek capitulation, which helped Hearts record an emphatic first league win of the season. The Highlanders now find themselves rock bottom of the Scottish Premiership with no points from three games.

Cowie was the catalyst for the domination of his old club, but perhaps the most notable aspect of the win was the hosts’ free-flowing football.

Neat passing moves were a feature of Hearts’ play. Cowie’s first came from John Souttar’s through pass to Sammon, which was laid into the midfielder’s path for a left-footed finish. Cowie then crossed for Sammon to head the second, and the former Scotland player scored the third early in the second half after another interchange involving Tony Watt and Sammon.

Johnsen’s heel provided the assist for Nicholson to put Hearts 4-0 ahead. A minute later, the winger took Cowie’s defence-splitting pass and slotted it beyond Owain Fon Williams via the goalkeeper’s right post. Callum Paterson’s late own goal completed the scoring, but it couldn’t detract from an imperious Hearts performance.

Richie Foran, in his first managerial role, left Edinburgh knowing Inverness face an uphil battle. “I had a good pop at half-time. I lost the rag completely hoping to get a reaction. The boys know it hasn’t been good enough,” he said.

“I know exactly what we need and we will have new players in this week. I’ll take the blame for this one. I picked the team and the shape so I’ll take this one. My players aren’t as bad as a 5-1 defeat. There were some good performances out there but it doesn’t look great. It’s not an ideal start for me as a manger but it’s not all doom and gloom.”