Hearts left-back Lennard Sowah knows all about the emotions involved in derby rivalry after crossing the Hamburg divide as a kid.
The 24-year-old German grew up as a Hamburger SV fan but, just over a decade ago, he found himself placed in a tricky predicament when handed the chance to sign for their bitter rivals St Pauli. He admitted at that stage in his life that it was difficult to get his head round the fact that, in order to give himself the best chance of making it at as a footballer, he would have to play for a club he had previously known only as the enemy.
“It was tough because I am actually a Hamburg fan,” said Sowah, recalling his early days with St Pauli. “At the time when I went to St Pauli, they were better than Hamburg. It was definitely a hard decision. I was maybe around 11, so I was like ‘I don’t want to play for them’, but they were better and I wanted to play at a higher level so I went there.
“I had the offer from them and I didn’t have the offer from Hamburg. I was just playing for a small club in Hamburg at non-league level before that. I didn’t tell my team-mates I was a Hamburg fan. Some other players in team were actually Hamburg fans, but I didn’t really say anything.
“Some of my friends support Hamburg and some of them St Pauli. I have loads of friends who play for both teams as well so it wasn’t really a big issue for them that I played for that team [when I supported another].”
Sowah eventually got to sign for his beloved Hamburg when he was 17, but only after putting them to the sword in a youth derby. “I remember one game when I was about 13, it was a youth cup game in Hamburg and we beat them 9-0 with St Pauli,” he said. “That was weird. Even as a child, you could feel the rivalry. Some players would be like ‘we have to beat them because we are St Pauli’.”
There will be no divided loyalties for Sowah when he makes his Edinburgh derby debut for Hearts against Hibs in Sunday’s Scottish Cup fifth-round tie at Tynecastle. He has already tasted a derby in Scotland during his brief spell with Hamilton Accies earlier this season. “I played in Hamilton v Motherwell and that was actually my last game for Hamilton,” he said. “We drew 1-1. You could feel the vibe inside the stadium from the fans. It wasn’t nice to concede a goal in the last couple of minutes.”
Sowah is expecting Tynecastle to be as frenzied on Sunday as it was during last week’s 4-1 victory over Rangers. “It was a really nice atmosphere against Rangers,” he said. “I hope we get the same amount of fans, or maybe even more. It was one of the noisiest grounds I’ve played in. I enjoyed playing in it.”
Sowah has started five games in succession since signing for Hearts early last month and feels he is getting stronger all the time as he adapts to life at his new club. “I think I’ve settled in alright,” he said. “It’s been okay but I know there’s a lot of things to improve and to learn, like our system and getting along with the other players on the pitch because we have a lot of new players. There are things we can definitely work on and improve. It’s a good sign that we’ve started well together but there is still a lot of work to do.”
Sowah has enjoyed his first month of working under Hearts head coach Ian Cathro. “He’s been good with me,” said the full-back. “I think he’s doing a good job. Every manager has his own way, but I definitely have a good feeling for [Cathro]. The way he brings something across or the way he explains a training session or what he wants us to do in a certain situation gives me a good feeling inside.”