MERELY yards from where Alim Ozturk is chatting is Hampden Park’s presentation platform. League Cups and Scottish Cups are handed over there every year, and the Hearts captain is determined to collect at least one of them this season.
The defender’s burning ambition is to lift silverware with the Edinburgh club. He sits talking to the Evening News at the official launch of the Ladbrokes-sponsored Scottish Professional Football League. Hearts want to repeat or better last season’s third-place Premiership finish, but perhaps their best chance of a major trophy lies in cup competitions.
Ozturk recognises the significance. League football begins this Sunday when Celtic visit Tynecastle, then comes a trip to McDiarmid Park on Tuesday to face St Johnstone in the Betfred League Cup second round. Hearts avoided the tournament’s group phase as one of Scotland’s European representatives but, after an early exit in the Europa League qualifying rounds, Ozturk is firmly focused on domestic honours.
“I want to stand here with a trophy in my hand one day,” he says. “I won a trophy in my first year here when we won the Championship, but not as captain. I want to do it as captain as well. There are three prizes available this season so we will see what happens.”
Hearts’ last Scottish Cup victory was the memorable 5-1 triumph over Capital neighbours Hibs in 2012. However, you must rewind a further 50 years to find the last time the League Cup was paraded in Gorgie. The early start to this year’s revamped League Cup seems to appeal to Ozturk and his colleagues.
“The League Cup starts next week. It’s a good start and everybody wants it,” he says, with evident desire in his voice. “We have to show that next week. I hope we can go through. When is the final? November? I want to be back here in November. That is what the team wants.
“We want to do better in the cups and the League Cup is the first one. We will be ready to deal with both the league and the cups. We have a good squad and the guys who are maybe not playing in the league can be ready for the cups. I don’t know what the gaffer will do, though.”
Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, has had plenty time to plan an assault on this year’s Premiership. Seventeen days is the gap between his team’s last official game, against Birkirkara, and Celtic’s arrival on Sunday. That period has seen criticism of Neilson reach unprecedented levels after defeat against the Maltese club.
Ozturk offers a robust and carefully thought-out defence of his manager. The player points to a Championship title win in Neilson’s first season in charge followed by European qualification last season. “Nobody in the group is talking badly about him. He is a good coach, he is young and I think people forget too easily what he has done in the last two years. You have to give him credit.
“Football is like this: One week you are the king and the next week people will put you under the ground. Just remember what he did in the last two seasons. I think the criticism is unfair. The club is building up and everything is going in the right way.
“Of course, everybody is disappointed about the Birkirkara game. He is telling us what we have to do and it’s up to us to do it on the pitch. It’s not only him. We must take the responsibility. It was not good enough against them. If we score first then it is a different game. We had a penalty and Jamie hit the bar so I think we were a bit unlucky, but I think it’s unfair about Robbie.”
Hearts’ pre-season preparations have prompted much chatter since that Birkirkara loss. The cancelling of last weekend’s friendly with Fleetwood Town after their manager Steven Pressley resigned left Tynecastle officials scrambling for a replacement. No-one was available, leaving the players to play an 11-v-11 bounce match amongst themselves.
Although not ideal, Ozturk is confident Hearts will be ready to open their league campaign against the champions. If his colleagues’ desire matches his own, then there certainly shouldn’t be much problem.
“When I went on holiday, I was away for two weeks and I was thinking: ‘I want to go back and play again. I want some games.’ I swear, it’s nice to get some rest but you miss it. The competition is the best way to show what you can do and you want that to start as early as possible.
“To improve, I believe it’s really important to keep doing what you are doing already. We have hard training but hard work pays off. The way we train is sometimes really difficult to do but you get fitter and fitter. If we keep doing that, I hope we can do better than last year. That’s what everybody wants. I hope we can do it again in the league and do better in the cups as well.
“We played a friendly game between us at the weekend and it was important to give everybody 90 minutes. The game was really good, everybody was sharp. We have had 17 days, that is enough time to be prepared. Let the matches come. We have played enough games to be ready.”