Ben Woodburn exclusive: Liverpool loanee talks of extending his stay at Hearts and what to do next with Anfield contract expiring
The future is as uncertain as Hearts’ prospects of a result at McDiarmid Park tomorrow. Their winless run in Perth exceeds a decade, another thing for young Woodburn to deal with just now.
He won’t overthink things because that would achieve nothing. After six months, 21 appearances and three goals on loan in Scotland, he has seen enough to know whether he wants to hang about.
“Hearts have been great for me. I’ve enjoyed my time here and, if the situation suits, I would 100 per cent consider staying at Hearts,” says the forward, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“There’s always a little bit of thought behind my future but nothing is in place. There is definitely going to be a decision but I just have to see how well I can do until the end of the season.
“I’ve been at Liverpool since a really young age and it will always have a massive place in my heart. It’s down to me and down to them if they want to do something in the summer. If not, we’ll start looking elsewhere.
“I don't have long left. Potentially I could start looking now but I don't really like to think about it during the season. There is so much on at the minute but my contract is up in the summer and I’ve got nothing nailed down.”
Woodburn’s vast salary at Anfield may be one obstacle to a deal. It remains to be seen if Hearts will motion him round the negotiating table. A place in the Tynecastle starting line-up has eluded him since the Premiership’s winter break and, at 22, he is realistic enough to acknowledge the need for more consistency in his game.
“I would say in some games I’ve shown glimpses of me at my best. On a consistent basis, there’s more to come,” he says. “I feel I get the best out of myself when I’m playing regularly. So I need to make an impact when I come on and show the gaffer I’m ready to start.
“When he puts me in I’ve got to show why I’m in that team and the difference I can make. I want to be a part of the big games, the defining games. That’s what makes you a player, when you do well in the big games. You play football to get involved on the big stages in front of a lot of fans. The Hearts fans have been great with me.”
Those defining games, that’s another thing in his thoughts. Hearts have manoeuvred themselves into a strong position sitting third in the Premiership and in the Scottish Cup quarter-finals. Potentially, the traditional business end of the season could be the gateway to a historic climax.
Such intensity is one reason Woodburn already feels the loan move from Liverpool to Tynecastle has been successful. “I’ve had a lot of game time. I’ve probably played more men’s football here than at any time in my career,” he points out, mindful of previous loans at Sheffield United, Oxford United and Blackpool.
“European football was a goal from the start of the season and we are on course for that if we keep winning. Another priority was winning the Scottish Cup and we’re now in the quarter-finals.
“I’ve learned a lot being here. Playing games in difficult conditions, having to win different ways against difficult teams, that’s been pretty new. You are up against top teams, Celtic and Rangers have some great players, that’s been difficult but I’ve enjoyed every minute here. Hopefully I can have a strong end to the season.”
To do that, he needs regular games. Competition at Liverpool was in a different stratosphere, with Woodburn up against genuine global superstars like Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino for first-team minutes.
Then there's Divock Origi, Takumi Minamino, Harvey Elliott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jordan Henderson…. you get the picture. The challenge at Hearts does not involve quite the same quality, but it is nonetheless a fierce fight.
Woodburn feels better for it. “I’d like to think I’m better now than I was last year. The amount of games here has helped a lot, playing with good players and against difficult teams. It’s only going to make you a good player,” he explains.
“The more minutes you get is going to improve you. I had regular midweek games on loan in England before and that’s the type of thing I like. I enjoy playing twice a week because I feel I get into a rhythm and produce my best football.
“I’ve spoken to a a few people back at Liverpool and they are always asking how it’s going, watching the games to see if I’m playing.”
You sense he is still waiting for a moment to make a vital impact which could ignite his own personal campaign. It is another issue tucked away in an already-overcrowded mind. St Johnstone away is a prime opportunity given Hearts’ last victory there came in a Scottish Cup fifth-round replay in February 2012.
The last league win was back in November 2010. “Obviously St Johnstone are a difficult team to play against. They make it tough and they make it nasty at times,” says Woodburn. “We are looking to get back into good form and this would be a good place to start. You have to find a way to win and take our chances when we get them.”