Hearts in Spain: Tynecastle star explains squad reaction to Almeria fight, abandonment and aftermath
The chapter on Hearts’ memorable winter friendly with Almeria has yet to be fully closed with no word yet from the Spaniards about the melee which led to the abandonment of the game, while there’s a suggestion Alex Cochrane could find himself with a two-match ban should the Scottish FA wish to intervene.
The Tynecastle club are currently looking into the possibility of whether the full-back could face further action after being sent off for a late kick out at Alejandro Pozo following an aerial challenge which the Hearts man took exception to.
Even if there is a punishment coming from Scotland's governing body, they should feel confident about winning an appeal, as Cochrane’s little piece of retribution was a common yellow-card worthy tackle and certainly not on the same level as Rodrigo Ely’s intervention as he came charging over to flatten the defender, sparking the fight.
Regardless of when the line is eventually drawn, the dust has already settled from one of the most bizarre football fall-outs this year. Friendlies are supposed to be genial encounters and yet this one lasted just 42 minutes (only 38 minutes of action) before it was decided by Hearts boss Robbie Neilson to take his players off for fear of retaliation leading to further injury for an already hampered squad.
Though footage of the fight went global, there’s still a feeling in the Hearts squad that much has been made about nothing. To them it’s a merely a strange incident potentially brought about by cultural differences and won’t leave a lasting impression.
“I actually don't think it was that bad. It got blown out of proportion a wee bit,” Lawrence Shankland, who started up front against Almeria, told the Evening News.
“The initial incident: Alex has just left a wee bit on the boy. It happens in every game of football. The big boy at the back has obviously reacted and that's what's caused our reaction. But it all honesty it wasn't anything major. I think it got out of control a wee bit. The manager just felt it was best to call it a day in case anything else silly happened after that. That was probably a sensible decision, to be honest.
“We were just laughing when we got back to the dressing room. With the initial incident with Alex, if that's where it stopped then nothing would have been made about it. It was the boy's reaction to that by charging over and sort of pushing Alex by the throat. You can't really have that sort of thing happening to your team-mate so everyone rushes over to sort it out. It was done after that.
“These things tend to blow up. That's the internet these days. It's interesting the amount of people who want to watch it. For us it was nothing major and nobody was that bothered about it as soon as we got back here [to the La Cala resort].
“There was a couple of hard challenges, aye. It was quite a competitive game for being a friendly to start with. Sometimes they can get like that. It's two different cultures and different people, so the understanding at times is a bit broken as well. But nah, it wasn't much and I don't think I'll be thinking about it much from now on.”
Hearts winter training camp has now come to an end with the team due to fly back to Edinburgh on Wednesday and continue preparations ahead of the visit of Kilmarnock a week on Saturday when the cinch Premiership returns to action.
The rest of the campaign will look quite differently for Robbie Neilson’s men than it did before the World Cup. The Jam Tarts were forced to squeeze in eight games more than some of their rivals once the league season got underway due to European commitments in what was an already cramped schedule thanks to the hiatus for the finals in Qatar. Despite this, they sit just four points off Aberdeen in third and fully fancy their chances of clawing back the gap.
“Obviously as a team we had a lot of games to deal with,” said Shankland. “It was a hectic schedule and probably the most the boys have ever had before, what with playing in Europe and that. So that was a new experience.
“Domestically we've been all right and kept ourselves close to that third spot. We knew the break was coming and it was important for us, with the injuries we had and the amount of games, that we made sure we were still within touching distance. We'll now have a right good go between now and the rest of the season.”
It’s been a productive debut season for the striker himself following his summer move from Beerschot in Belgium. Signed for a reported £500,000 and arriving with the reputation for scoring goals, there was a lot of pressure on Shankland to live up to his billing and it’s certainly done that so far. He’s got an average of a goal every second goal with 12 strikes in 24 appearances and now the expectation is for him to become Hearts’ first 20-plus-goal-a-season striker in over 30 years.
“I knew the kind of team I was coming into,” he explained. “I'd seen a bit of the boys and the players here, so I knew it could suit me all things going well. It's been a good start for me personally but that's all it's been so far. There's a lot of the season left so we can hopefully rediscover that form when we start back and I can get the goals cracking again.”