This season has been one continuous and very pleasant surprise for Prince Buaben.
He joined Hearts last year expecting a tense title battle with Rangers and Hibs and hoped that by the summer he could earn a contract extension. It’s fair to say his relatively realistic pre-season forecast has been blown out of the water.
Hearts are 19 points clear atop the Scottish Championship as their two closest rivals meet tonight at Ibrox. Meanwhile, Buaben’s new three-and-a-half-year contract was signed and sealed inside the Tynecastle filing cabinet by Christmas. The Ghanaian midfielder’s aim now is to see out what would be the best season of his career by winning the title and automatic promotion.
He arrived in Edinburgh a free agent with modest expectations last summer after leaving the English League Two club Carlisle United. But those expectations have already been far surpassed. “I’m not going to lie. I didn’t expect us to do so well, losing only once in 23 games. It’s going well for us,” he told the Evening News.
“I was expecting us to go up but not with this kind of gap. I thought it was going to be a close title race. I’m not saying we’ve won the league already but we are doing well and we have a 19-point gap. Obviously other teams have games in hand but we just need to keep winning.
“When I joined, I spoke to Craig Levein and the gaffer [Robbie Neilson] and they said they were just going to give me a year and see how it goes. Even if they gave me a three or four-year contract, I’d still have done the same as I did. I’d still have worked hard every day.
“They offered me a new contract, which I was delighted about because you want to secure your career. Then in the future you know you have no pressure, you just need to keep working hard each day and prove to the manager you deserve a place in the team every week. We’re going to have to win the league first. Then I can judge it and say, ‘yeah, this year has probably been the best year of my career’. The main thing right now is we have to focus on winning the title.”
That means winning game by game, starting tomorrow when Livingston visit Tynecastle. Some supporters are already talking about when Hearts will win the title, not if. They approach Buaben in the street with such questions but the 26-year-old isn’t distracted by it. He knows what is required to be successful in Scotland after winning the Scottish Cup with Dundee United in 2010.
“They are allowed to speak about the title because we are doing great. When they ask me: ‘What do you think? Are we going to win the title?’ I’m not going to say ‘no’. I’m keeping positive and I think we can win it. It’s in our hands. We can’t give it away. It’s like being in a cup final. Every game is a cup final now. You want to win every game so that you open up the gap even further and you know you’re going to win the league. Even if it’s the last few games, we’re still going to go out to win.”
It could be argued that the sizeable advantage Hearts hold over Rangers with 13 league games left is akin to being 3-0 ahead in a cup final. “That’s how it feels,” said Buaben. “We have good backroom staff telling us every day is a cup final. You’re going to have to win it to win the cup final. The more games you win, the less pressure you have. From now until the end of the season we just have to keep winning. Then there will be no pressure.”
Seeking to keep tension to a minimum and prevent anyone getting carried away are head coach Neilson and his staff. Having worked so hard to put clear distance between themselves and the chasing pack, they know the business end of the season is near.
“The gaffer speaks to the boys all the time. That’s the good thing about him. He tells the boys people are going to put pressure on us and it’s just how we try to cope,” revealed Buaben. “I think we’re doing really well. He keeps saying we should just forget about winning the title. The main thing is winning each game as they come. If we win them all, then the title will take care of itself.
“It’s hard to forget about it but as a professional you need to deal with it. The gaffer always tries to get the boys training properly and working hard. I don’t see anyone slacking.”
Buaben is a good example of the mentality inside Riccarton. Relenting after signing the new contract wasn’t in the midfielder’s mind, for he has continued to perform throughout the winter. He sat out last weekend’s win at Livingston through suspension after accumulating six yellow cards but played in Tuesday’s under-20 match with Kilmarnock to ensure he lost none of his sharpness.
“I’ve been training hard and I played for the under-20s on Tuesday to try to get some match fitness. Hopefully I will be involved in the game tomorrow,” he said. “You don’t want yellow cards but it’s part of football. Sometimes you need to put a tackle in and you get lucky and get away with it. I’ve had six yellow cards and that means a ban so hopefully I won’t get any more.”
The suspension was merely one blip in a season which, so far, has proven to be way beyond anything Buaben imagined.