Soufian El Hassnaoui admits that he is still waiting to ignite in a Hearts jersey as he plays catch-up following an injury-interrupted start to his time at Tynecastle.
However, the Dutch-Moroccan forward is adamant he will soon start fulfilling the promise which prompted the club to hand him a three-year contract back in June.
Three starts in Hearts’ past four games have helped El Hassnaoui hone his fitness levels following groin problems, but he insists he has plenty scope for improvement as he continues to adapt to life in a new country handicapped by not having had any pre-season under his belt.
“There’s definitely a lot more to come from me,” he told the Evening News. “I’m not even 100 per cent fit.
“I am fit, but my fitness can get better. I missed out on pre-season, but the biggest thing is I am not playing with pain now. The fitness will come when I play more games. I need that before I can really do my best.
“It’s not frustrating because I know it will come. I had to wait a few months so I’m just enjoying being able to play. It will come, though – I have no worries about that.”
Neither do the Hearts management. Director of football Craig Levein and head coach Robbie Neilson were so excited by the potential in the former De Graafschap and Sparta Rotterdam forward that they signed him in June even though he had just undergone surgery on his troublesome groin, and would miss the start of this season.
Despite Hearts racking up truckloads of goals in his absence, there has been no reluctance to phase him into a Championship-topping team.
El Hassnaoui vindicated the hype with a goal on his first start, against Livingston last month, and is eager to add to his tally.
He thought his chance had arisen when Hearts won a penalty against Dumbarton last weekend, but after grabbing the ball, he was swiftly overruled by his team-mates, who insisted that midfielder Prince Buaben should take it. El Hassnaoui responded by kicking the ball away in annoyance. “A striker always wants to take a penalty,” he said. “There was a little discussion about it, but that’s football, it’s not a big deal. We don’t need to talk about it anymore – it’s done.”
El Hassnaoui’s next opportunity to bulge the net is likely to come against Hibs at Easter Road on Sunday. With fellow strikers Dale Carrick and James Keatings both struggling through injury, he is expected to retain his starting place and get his first taste of the Edinburgh derby. He admits it will probably be the highest-octane fixture of his career so far.
“Everybody’s looking forward to Sunday,” he said. “Everybody wants to play in games like this so I’m excited to play. I have never played in a derby between two teams from the same city before.
“In Holland, there aren’t many cities that have two clubs – maybe only Rotterdam. When I played at Sparta, though, they were in a different league from Feyenoord. De Graafschap-Vitesse is very wild, but I think Hearts v Hibs is much bigger.
“Hibs will be fired up to beat us, but if we play our game and do the same stuff we’ve been doing in past weeks, then we will be alright. We just have to stay focused and play our game and not worry too much about what Hibs are doing. We are playing very good and I think we can get a result.”
Aside from fitness issues, El Hassnaoui, who shares a home with team-mate Alim Ozturk, has loved his four months in Edinburgh so far. “It’s been very good,” he said. “The people are nice, we are playing good football and I’m getting fitter. The fact the team is winning every week helps.
“Every team has a lot of difficulties against us. We work hard and have a lot of players with great ability at the front and back of the team. We score a lot of goals and our defence is strong. Every game we score three, four or five goals and we don’t let many in, so that shows our power.”
El Hassnaoui, who grew up in the Netherlands, has been staggered at the level of support Hearts have had home and away this season. He is relishing the sight of 3800 exuberant Jambos bouncing in Easter Road’s Dunbar End this Sunday lunchtime.
“I think every player enjoys a big atmosphere – as a team you can feel the extra support and it can give you a boost,” he said. “I’ve found the supporters amazing – playing at Tynecastle is great. Even at away matches, they always come in big numbers.
“This is the biggest club I’ve played for in terms of the numbers who are coming. In Holland, in many away games, we only got a few hundred people, but Hearts are taking around 3000 people to away games, which is amazing. Every game is like playing at Tynecastle because our fans make more noise than the home supporters.
“I’ve been very surprised by the level of support Hearts get. I saw the size of the stadium when I signed but I didn’t know it would always be full. We have to savour this time because you don’t always get periods like this when you win every week. We have to work hard every week to keep this level up.”