Lublin in south-east Poland is the international holy grail for Hearts defender Krystian Nowak.
He is desperate to be there come the evening of June 16, standing inside the city’s Arena Lublin screaming out the national anthem, Mazurek Dabrowskiego.
Earning a place in his country’s squad for the European Under-21 Championship is high on the player’s agenda – an ambition he believes Hearts can help him fulfil. Nowak will be 23 by the time the finals kick-off in his homeland. As an under-21 player when the qualifying campaign began two years ago, he remains eligible under UEFA rules.
The task to prove his worth in time is daunting given the tournament begins in three months. He retains unshakeable belief that it is possible despite the fact his last cap was 16 months ago against Ukraine. Telephone conversations with the Poland Under-21 coach, Marcin Dorna, have offered plenty encouragement.
Nowak is clearly on the radar but Dorna will monitor the defender’s situation at club level before deciding if a recall is appropriate. Nowak waited four months for a Hearts debut after arriving last August and needed a change of manager to get it. He has looked steady and assured since Ian Cathro replaced Robbie Neilson in December, although a knee injury interrupted his progress recently.
He must play week in and week out between now and the season’s end to press for a place in Dorna’s final squad. By the time Poland kick-off their Group A campaign against Slovakia, Nowak is determined to be inside that packed ground in Lublin with his palm resting against his chest.
“Next week, the coach will give the call-ups for the Under-21 team for friendly matches [against Italy and Czech Republic]. Maybe I have a chance because I am playing for Hearts now,” said Nowak, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “If I play well, it’s a chance for me but I know I must do well in every match for Hearts. One game or two games is no good, it must be every game.
“I can play in the European tournament this summer so I must play good for my club and maybe I can go. I will be 23 soon but I can still play under-21 for Poland until the end of this tournament. We have England, Slovakia and Sweden in our group. It’s a hard group but it’s a good opportunity in our own country.
“Marcin Dorna called me before and we spoke a little. He watches the videos but I don’t think he has come to Edinburgh yet. Maybe he did and I didn’t know but I know he is watching. It’s a very important tournament for us, we are the home nation, so he will look at a lot of players.
“Before, when I was playing regularly for my club, I played in the national team. I haven’t played for my country for more than one year so I want to come back and play at international level.”
Nowak delivered the kind of solid display Dorna would want against Hamilton at the weekend as Hearts won 4-0. He now feels ready to do himself justice in Scotland having managed just nine appearances since signing a two-year contract at Tynecastle last August.
“It’s a very good moment for me. I want to play all the time in all the games with hard work in training. If I don’t play, I do the same,” he said. “I work hard every day and wait for my chance. At the moment I am playing so it’s good. I do the same things all the time. I come early to training, I do the hard work and I do everything I must.
“I played some games at the end of last year and then I got a knee injury. I came back against Rangers but I was still in pain. I played 70 minutes with tapes on the knee and we had a good result so I could come off. I felt pain after that and I wasn’t comfortable so I didn’t play for some games. I played against Partick Thistle and I felt better, more comfortable. Everything is okay now. It’s good for me to be back in the team. We got a good result on Saturday after losing the last three games. We had to win against Hamilton and we did.”
A clean sheet was also welcome after some erratic defensive displays by Cathro’s side. Aaron Hughes’ absence due to a calf complaint continues and Nowak is happy to showcase his credentials for a more regular centre-back berth alongside the Greek, Tasos Avlonitis.
“I felt I played well on Saturday and I feel I can take this forward,” he continued. “We didn’t lose a goal, Hamilton didn’t have many scoring situations, so that is good for the defence and good for me.
“When I played as a defensive midfielder before, I felt good. I played three games there and I felt settled. Now I am playing centre-back and it’s not a problem. I played centre-back for the last three years. It’s better for me because I know where I must go and I know my movements. I can play in midfield or defence, it’s a decision for the gaffer. I feel good in defence just now and I just want to play.”
Nowak insists his relationship with Cathro has helped his development. He is now striving for the kind of consistency that will see him established in maroon. “After the games, he [Cathro] gives me a lot of information about my movements, what I do good or if I do something bad. We try to work in training to get better. We speak all the time.
“I feel better now that I have played three games in a row. It’s hard when you don’t play for four games and then you go into an important game. You must feel the rhythm and feel the ball.
“We had a good result on Saturday and now we must keep going because we have some very important games coming. Aberdeen, Celtic and St Johnstone are all very important. These are the games before the league split so we must get points to go up in the league. We must get to the Europa League so these games will be vital.”
Europe is certain to be a focal point for Hearts, and Nowak in particular, over the coming weeks. By helping his club into the Europa League qualifying rounds, the Pole could also cement a place at the European Under-21 Championship. For now, all roads lead to Lublin.