SIGNING a Brazilian defender named Branco sparks thoughts of raking World Cup free-kicks and dazzling skills on the left flank. Granted, Igor Rossi Branco can play left-back, but Hearts see him mainly as a centre-half. Head coach Robbie Neilson describes him as strong, aggressive and dominant after signing him on a 12-month contract.
Neilson wants his team’s attacking panache to continue back in the Scottish Premiership, but Rossi Branco won’t be gliding past opponents in a myriad of stepovers like his famous namesake of the eighties and nineties. He offers British-style cover in central defence, where Alim Ozturk and Blazej Augustyn will be first choice at Tynecastle come the start of the new season. Rossi Branco and Jordan McGhee are deputies for now but will both have a part to play.
Bringing a Brazilian to Scotland always prompts a certain amount of intrigue. Rossi Branco arrives from the Portuguese club Maritimo carrying an Italian passport and, like Augustyn, a history of knee trouble. Neilson openly admits that he probably wouldn’t be here otherwise. Both he and Augustyn signed one-year deals to minimise the risk to Hearts should past injury problems resurface.
“Igor had a knee problem a couple of years ago. He’s a good player, he’s played in the Europa League and he’s played in Portugal’s top flight,” said Neilson. “There are always going to be issues if we get [players like] them to come to Scotland. That is the issue. It’s a case of us trying to manage it. It’s a similar situation to Blazej.
“Igor was put to us a few weeks ago so we took a look at him. I spoke to a few people in Portugal, coaches and agents, and I was pleased with what I heard. I watched him a bit myself. He will come in and give us a lot of value. He’s strong, aggressive, he can play left-back or left-sided centre-half, so I’m pleased with him. I see him as predominantly a centre-half.”
Neilson is readying his squad for Sunday’s visit of Everton – his last opportunity for fine-tuning before Hearts’ competitive season starts. Virtually all of his players are fit, the obvious exception being Soufian El Hassnaoui, who is out for four months with a torn posterior cruciate ligament. Rossi Branco is expected to feature at some stage.
“He’ll be suited to the British game. He’s quite physical, good in the air and aggressive,” continued Neilson. “It shouldn’t be too much of a problem for him playing here. He comes within budget. It’s important you get guys who are physical. We have Nicholson, King, Walker, Reilly and guys like that who don’t have a lot of physicality. We need bigger guys round about to help out at set-plays and things like that.
“His English is actually better than I expected. It’s better than Juanma’s and probably at a similar level to Miguel [Pallardo], so that won’t be a problem. I’ll hopefully try to get Branco involved on Sunday. He has done a bit of pre-season over in Portugal then with a team in another part of Europe so he isn’t far away. We’ll look to get him on against Everton – as we will with Ozturk, Gomis and guys like that.”
The arrival of the Nigerian international defender Juwon Oshaniwa will complete Hearts’ summer recruitment drive. Oshaniwa is in Abuja awaiting confirmation of his visa to move to the UK. Neilson is confident he will get the necessary documents but is frustrated by the delay.
“We’re just waiting on Juwon to come in really. Hopefully that could still be done this week but I’ve been saying that for the last few weeks. It is just taking a lot longer than we expected it to on the Nigerian side,” he explained. “I’ve not spoken to Juwon but I’ve been talking to his agent. The club are speaking to the government over in Nigeria to try and get things sped up but it’s a process which takes time.
“He is doing fitness stuff himself over in Nigeria so he should be fit enough when he comes over. It shouldn’t take long to get him up to speed. Hopefully, there’s no problem with it. As with everything in football, until he is here and signed then something could arise, but we don’t foresee any problems.”
A new-look Hearts defence is gradually falling into place after Ozturk was named captain. He will don the armband against Everton and begin the process of succeeding Danny Wilson. “He is well respected in the dressing room and I respect him as a player,” said Neilson. “I think the captaincy will help him progress and he’ll be a good choice. It gives him the extra responsibility – it will benefit Alim as well as the team. He has a responsibility to be a role model for the team and for the fans and that will help him.
“Neil [Alexander] is part of the coaching staff, so that ruled him out a wee bit and I always feel it is good to have a centre-back or a defensive players as your captain – someone who can see the whole pitch.
“The Everton game is a really good one for us to have. It’s good for the fans, for the players and we’re really looking forward to getting back to Tynecastle. We have also benefited from a clear week to build up to it – something we haven’t had during a busy pre-season – so it’s been positive to get back to a routine.”
Another piece of business was completed earlier this week when Jason Holt’s departure to Rangers was confirmed. The 22-year-old midfielder signed a three-year contract at Ibrox after around £100,000 was paid to Hearts in a development fee.
The Edinburgh club could have held out for more money and taken the matter to a tribunal – as Rangers did last year to secure more than £200,000 for midfielder Charlie Telfer from Dundee United, despite him having only one senior appearance on his CV at the time. Neilson explained that Hearts didn’t want to be responsible for Holt’s career stalling after he rejected their offer of a contract.
“It is a totally different situation from the Charlie Telfer one. We offered Jason a new contract and he turned it down. He hadn’t signed for anyone so what do we do? Leave him in limbo? We can’t do that – we have a responsibility to let a young player go and play football. Yes, we could have said ‘let’s go to tribunal’ and the boy could sit there without a club for a year or two years. He is a good kid and worked hard when he was a Hearts player and we need to be reasonable in what we expect.
“We definitely have a responsibility. He’s got to play football and we accepted an offer which we believed was fair. Jason wants to play every week and that wasn’t going to happen here. Going down a division probably didn’t help him because we changed our shape and played with just two in midfield a lot of the time, which didn’t suit him. Although it sounds silly, he would probably have played more if we stayed in the Premiership. He’s a good player and will do well for Rangers.”
n Tickets for Hearts v Everton at Tynecastle this Sunday are still available. Prices are £18 for adults, £10 for concessions and £5 for under-12s. To purchase tickets, call 0333 043 1874 (option 1 then 1), visit www.heartsfc.co.uk or visit the Hearts ticket centre on McLeod Street.