Bjorn Johnsen admits his rise to prominence at Hearts is posing a new challenge in terms of how to keep his outspoken father quiet.
Hasse Johnsen has watched with pride at his son’s emergence as the Tynecastle side’s main central striker. A player-of-the-month award for November coupled with interest from English Championship club Derby County offer evidence of the Hearts forward’s burgeoning stock level. Johnsen senior clearly feels international recognition with Norway should be the next step for his boy, who is also eligible to play for USA due to his mother being American.
When, the day after Johnsen’s man-of-the-match display at home to Rangers a fortnight ago, an unofficial Norwegian football twitter feed suggested that playing in Scotland should be no barrier to an international call-up because former Celtic midfielder Stefan Johansen had also been picked while playing in this country, Hasse Johnsen pulled no punches with his response.
“I almost want USMNT [American national team] to call him up so that we can confirm that the Norwegian NT coaches are totally clueless,” was his withering verdict on the Norway coaches.
Johnsen laughed off his dad’s online grenade. “That’s my dad,” he said. “He is definitely emotional. I gave him a talking-to afterwards. I said ‘everyone’s watching you’. He has no idea. He’s new to it as well. Everyone’s watching what you say and do. It’s not a bad thing. Publicity is always a good thing. At least he’s on my side.
“He coached me when I was little and he coached my two younger brothers. He has his B licence. He definitely knows about football, but his emotions get in the way. That’s what happens. He was here for the Motherwell game and he was here for the first Rangers game. It was emotional for me and him. He really likes it here. He likes Edinburgh as well. He is just happy that I’m in a good situation.”
Arnaud Djoum and Faycal Rherras have earned international recognition with Cameroon and Morocco respectively since joining Hearts. Johnsen hopes to follow suit. “I would love to hear from America or Norway – I’m half and half, I have two passports,” he said. “I’m not really worried about not being called up yet. I am worried about me playing the way I know I can play and showing everybody who I am and if they think I am good enough to play for their country then I will take that as a compliment and see what I want to do with that. Other than that, I am focused on doing my job.”
He has been doing his job pretty well over the last couple of months. It wasn’t so long ago Johnsen was being written off by critics as one of a batch of Hearts strikers recruited in the summer who supposedly didn’t score goals. Since netting his first against Dundee in mid-October, Johnsen has added another three to his tally. More importantly, however, he has forced himself into the starting line-up and started to make his presence felt. Even though he didn’t score, his swashbuckling performance in the 2-0 home win over Rangers a fortnight ago was his best yet in a maroon jersey.
Asked about his rapid turnaround, he said: “Personally, I think it’s down to confidence. You’ve got to get used to the league and the players you’re up against. When you’re up against a guy like [Motherwell defender] Stephen McManus] you’ve got to know about them. Look at Rangers, for instance. In the first game, they didn’t have a clue who I was and I played really well. But in the second game, they made adjustments to play against me.
“I didn’t get pre-season with the guys, so that obviously would have helped me get up to speed and get to know everybody quicker. It’s just an ongoing process. Right now, it’s about keeping the confidence high.”
Having the revitalised Djoum playing in the No.10 position just behind him has been a significant factor in Johnsen’s form. The Cameroon midfielder spoke recently of how he feels he and the Norwegian-American have a good bond on the pitch, and Johnsen agrees. “Me and Djoum have a really good connection on and off the pitch,” he said. “I haven’t had a lot of time on the pitch with players like Conor [Sammon] and Tony [Watt] yet but I’ve had my chance to play with Djoum and we’ve generally been playing well together.”
Johnsen is confident the recent change in head coach at Hearts won’t have much bearing on his form, with Ian Cathro coming into replace Robbie Neilson. The striker spoke recently of his desire to find stability at Hearts after a chaotic period at previous club Litex Lovech in Bulgaria. He doesn’t envisage a routine managerial change at a club in a good place off the field undermining his or his team’s progress on the pitch.
“This is stability compared to what I was used to [in Bulgaria],” he said. “It’s not been that big a change at the moment, so I’m not concerned about it. The club has always been very direct in saying what they wanted to do and what type of person they wanted to bring in. We all agreed with what they were saying because they knew what they were talking about. I liked Robbie, so I was sad when he went, but there really isn’t that much difference at the moment. This is football – you’ve just got to keep moving on and look to the next page.”
Johnsen had no awareness of Cathro prior to his arrival at Tynecastle but having spent time in Spain and Portugal, he is well aware of the exploits of his mentor Nuno Espirito Santos, who had the Hearts head coach as his right-hand man at Rio Ave and Valencia before becoming Porto’s head coach.
“Nuno’ a great coach and Ian will have learned a lot from him. You can see that on the training pitch. The things he wants to do, in terms of possession, are from countries like Portugal, so I feel comfortable. I like his training.
“When the press put out who Ian was, obviously we read about him. Once we knew he had worked with Nuno and at Valencia as well, these are huge clubs that we all want to play at, so he must be doing something right. Now he is in this position so we have to learn from him and support him.
“I didn’t know what to expect, because he is Scottish, so none of us knew but the players from outside [Scotland] are seeing things that he is doing that we see teams in other countries doing, so, it might be new for some of the Scottish players to get used to. We have all played possession games in games and if there are different tactics, we will get used to it really quickly. He hasn’t really changed much, though.
“The training is really nice and he and Austin [MacPhee] are good guys. Things might change a bit this week since we got beat last week but so far we haven’t seen many changes. He knows our away form is not so good so he may have to change a few things to sort that. In terms of big changes and getting his thought processes over, he’ll probably wait until January [the break] when we have proper time together and can have like a little pre-season. You can’t change too much instantly because too much change is not good sometimes.”