Soufian El Hassnaoui admits his first season at Hearts has been something of a write-off as he explained that it is now likely to be next term before supporters get a chance to see him at his best.
Hearts’ management had high hopes for the Dutch-Moroccan forward when they handed him a three-year deal last summer. However, injury problems have tarnished the 25-year-old’s time in Edinburgh, limiting him to just seven starts and preventing him from operating anywhere near his best.
El Hassnaoui missed out on pre-season after undergoing an operation to solve a groin problem which had sidelined him for the closing months of last season with previous club Sparta Rotterdam. After making his long-awaited Hearts debut as a substitute in the 0-0 draw at Dumbarton on 13 September, he started to get regular game time through the autumn.
However, just as he felt he was getting close to finding some rhythm, an ankle injury sustained in the feisty top-of-the-table showdown at home to Rangers on 22 November left him facing another lay-off. Although he has been deemed fit enough for a seat on the bench for Hearts’ last three games, El Hassnaoui hasn’t made a single appearance for the first team in more than three months.
“It has been a hard season for me, it has been very difficult,” he admitted. “I had just come back from injury and started to play and I wasn’t fully fit but I was getting better. I could feel myself getting sharper and then against Rangers I got a kick on my ankle and it caused me a big problem with my ankle bone.
“At the time I did not think I would be out for so long. I thought it would be a week or two. I played on for another 30 minutes with pain but I kept running. I trained the week after because we had a game against Celtic the week after and I wanted to play in it. But maybe that was not a smart thing to do.
“Afterwards I had an MRI scan and you could see the damage the kick had caused. I couldn’t walk, so it was hard. It was a bad decision to train as that meant it has taken me a little more time to get back.
“It has been hard but I have played for a few years now and I have learned [injuries] is a part of football. You just have to keep going. The first week [of being injured] is more disappointing than the second week. But after a few days you just have to work hard because if you don’t do that you won’t come back.”
Despite his problems, El Hassnaoui is adamant he doesn’t regret moving to Edinburgh. “I never ever thought I made a mistake coming to Hearts, I am happy here,” he stressed. “The manager has given me encouragement and I needed that. The boys here have all been good with me. Alim Ozturk, who I live with, and Callum Paterson have been particularly good at helping keep my spirits up.”
While the injury sustained against Rangers was an untimely setback, El Hassnaoui admits missing pre-season – a major problem for any footballer – has caused the most havoc to his Hearts career so far. He is hopeful that he can finish this season without any further problems and then focus on hitting the ground running next term, when Hearts are likely to be back in the Premiership. “I missed pre-season and I think that’s an important time for you,” he said. “I don’t want to miss another. The most frustrating thing is I have not been able to show the supporters what I can do. That’s disappointing. It may be next season before they see the best of me.”
El Hassnaoui is now injury-free and hopeful of returning to action in today’s home match against Cowdenbeath after building up some match fitness by featuring for the under-20s . Head coach Robbie Neilson believes the attacker can still play a part in helping Hearts get over the line as they close in on the title and a return to the Premiership. “It has been a difficult season for him, but he definitely has quality, that’s the reason we have brought him in,” he said.
“I didn’t expect him to come in and play 35 or 40 games like the other guys we brought in. The reason we get these guys, usually, is that they have had issues at other clubs – whether it be fitness, form or problems with the coaching staff. That is how we get them within budget. If they were playing 40 games a season, fit as a fiddle, then we wouldn’t get guys like him from Holland, they would be going to the English Premier League or to Italy. We always know that there are things we need to work on with those types of player and with Soufi it was his fitness.
“His attitude is great, his technique is fantastic – we just need to get him fit. He definitely has qualities that will help us in the run in. He is a very good player – I see it every day in training and when he plays in the 20s. I thought he played really well for the 20s the other night and worked really hard – it’s probably the fittest I have seen him since he came here. He is round about the first team and we want to get him some game time. We want to get him back to a level that he can play at this season but, if not, then I’m sure he will do really well for us next season with a full pre-season under his belt.”