Hearts midfielder Prince Buaben freely admits he isn’t enjoying his football right now. The Edinburgh club garnered just two points from the last nine, and Buaben is unhappy seeing his preferred brand of passing football negated.
Firm pitches make Hearts’ pass-and-move style difficult as winter takes a firm grip in Scotland. Compounding the problem are Premiership sides who are now fully aware of how Robbie Neilson wants his team to play and how to interrupt the flow. The last three matches against Dundee, Motherwell and Aberdeen have yielded two draws and a defeat against teams whose aggression and pressing play has choked Hearts’ passing rhythm.
Buaben, a veteran of Scottish football from spells with Dundee United and Partick Thistle, accepts this is part of the challenge at this time of year. Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Pittodrie was characterised by a busy midfield area with little room to breathe, leading to longer passes from back to front. It is a case of needs must but the Ghanaian isn’t pleased watching balls fly back and forth above his head.
“I’ve been speaking to the manager and, personally, I think I can do better,” he told the Evening News. “At the moment, it’s not the game you want to play because it’s always long-ball, like Saturday. You try to bring the ball down and think differently but you can’t really do anything about it. I’ve been brought up always to pass the ball since I was a youth player so for me to come in and try long balls, it’s no use.
“You sometimes need to keep grinding every day, that’s the what the manager tells us. You need to keep working to try and take control of the game, but it’s quite hard when you keep having long balls over your head. The pitch on Saturday wasn’t really the best for a team like us. We like to pass the ball. You don’t want to take challenges coming in from the back, then you go long ball and it becomes a fight for second balls.
“The way Aberdeen set up, they made it difficult for us. We like to pass the ball and play it around but they didn’t let us, which is a credit to them. The manager had a word with us at half-time and in the second half we did really well. We had chances, Sam [Nicholson] hit the bar, Juanma had a chance and Callum [Paterson] had a chance. I think we deserved a draw but this is football.”
Like his manager and team-mates, Buaben offered only support for teenager Jordan McGhee after the match. The defender’s bizarre handball gifted Adam Rooney the match-winning penalty three minutes from full-time and ultimately consigned Hearts to defeat. “No-one is disappointed with Jordan because these things happen in football,” insisted Buaben. “He’s a defender, we have to have to some communication but he didn’t know what was behind him. It was just a reaction. We all told him to keep his head up. It’s not the end of the season, we’ve got loads of games left.
“I scored an own goal away at Motherwell once and I told him, ‘listen, there’s nothing you can do now’. He has to keep going. We have another game this week. Jordan has played a lot of games for a young guy so he is experienced. I’m sure he knows what to do to get ready for the next game.”
The lingering disappointment from the weekend is tempered somewhat by a glance at the Ladbrokes Premiership table. Despite the difficulties of their last three matches, Hearts remain third in the league in their first season back in Scotland’s top flight. They won last season’s Championship at a canter but were always likely to endure peaks and troughs in an unforgiving top division.
They sit one point better off than fourth-placed St Johnstone ahead of this weekend’s meeting between the clubs at McDiarmid Park. Buaben admits holding on to third place – which would bring a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds – through to the end of the campaign would amount to a successful season.
“Of course we would be happy, especially coming from the Championship,” he said. “People forget we have just come up from the league below and it’s always going to be difficult coming up to the top league. Obviously, we want to do better if we can, but if the end of May comes and we stay third in the league, I think all the people will be happy with that.
“People need to understand that it’s always going to be hard coming up from the Championship. You come up against better players and you have to adjust. We also brought some new players in. They need to get used to the Scottish game. I’m sure we’ll be fine come May.
“You don’t want to lose games as a footballer but there’s always going to be a bad patch that you have to go through. We are just going to go to St Johnstone to win the game and then see what happens.”
It remains to be seen whether Buaben is fit enough to take part in Perth. He left Pittodrie in flip flops at the weekend due to a toe injury, which he hopes will clear up before the weekend. “I just got a knock on it so I’ll wait and see how it is and if it will settle down. It’s really sore just now.”