Alex Cochrane compares Hearts v Celtic with facing Jack Grealish and Douglas Luiz as he makes Tynecastle statement
Hearts against Celtic is one of Scotland’s most intense football rivalries and Cochrane is well-informed about what to expect on his league debut. The Brighton and Hove Albion loanee is anticipating the most high-profile game of his fledgling years so far.
A Brighton debut against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup two years ago saw him confront reputable internationalists from England, Brazil and Scotland. The chance to play established English Premier League opponents was quite an achievement for the then-18-year-old, but Saturday night will surpass it.
“I expect it to be the toughest and the biggest game I’ve played. I’m excited to get on the pitch and get going. Celtic have a massive pedigree and top players so it won’t be easy but I’m ready for the test,” said Cochrane, speaking exclusively to the Evening News.
“I wanted to come here and play big games. It’s a shame the stadium won’t be full but when teams like Celtic, Rangers and Hibs come to Tynecastle it's going to be a really good experience. Even going to Celtic Park, Ibrox and Easter Road will be a real challenge and something to look forward to.
Get Tynecastle rocking
“I know the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, plus Hibs and Hearts, how big it is and how much it means to the fans. They are the standout games I used to watch. It’s an atmosphere I want to play in. The passion the fans show in these games is amazing. The sooner we can get a full stadium and get Tynecastle rocking, the better.
“I’d probably say my debut for Brighton against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup is my biggest game so far. In all honesty, this game doesn’t compare to that. I think this game is a lot bigger. It will mean a lot more, especially because it’s the beginning of the league season and you want a positive start.”
Cochrane is certain to operate at left wing-back if Hearts, as expected, go with their recently-installed 3-4-3 formation. They changed to a back four against Inverness Caledonian Thistle last week in the final Premier Sports Cup group tie. However, Celtic is a much sterner test.
Tynecastle’s capacity remains vastly reduced as the gradual reintroduction of fans to sporting events progresses at a slow pace. Edinburgh City Council finally permitted 5,272 supporters for this fixture, meaning more than 5,000 home season ticket holders will miss out on seeing their side start the cinch Premiership campaign.
No Celtic fans will be allowed inside the ground and Hearts are keen to use the exclusive backing from locals to their advantage. After 16 months out of the Scottish top flight, there is a strong desire to re-establish Tynecastle as one of the country’s most intimidating venues.
“When I first came here, the gaffer was telling me about it,” explained Cochrane. “He said to me: ‘This place needs to be fortress. When Tynecastle is rocking, this is our place.’
“Even the lads speaking about it were saying how important it is to get good results at home, especially against Celtic, Rangers or Hibs in a derby. It’s important to us to show the fans what we can do, give our all, and hopefully the fans will be happy with that.”
TV coverage a bonus
On a personal level, this kind of fiercely competitive match is exactly what Cochrane needs for the sake of his own development. He has played more than enough youth and under-23 football to last a lifetime, added to an injury-interrupted loan spell in Belgium last season.
Now there is a potentially priceless opportunity to showcase his talent in front of a nationwide Sky Sports audience. It is a privilege he may not have got this season had he stayed on England’s south coast. “That’s another bonus about coming up here, the TV coverage you get,” he admitted.
“You have to just try to ignore that and play despite everything else going on. I know what I can do and I just want to prove that week in and week out.”
Cochrane’s role in this season’s Hearts team is a simple one. Left wing-back is a position he knows well. There are slight adjustments but overall the 3-4-3 system suits the strengths of a player who can both attack and defend with equal command.
“I’ve been enjoying it. I’ve played in that position before so it’s something I know a little bit about. There have been a few tweaks for me that the gaffer and I have spoken about.
“This is something different to youth-team football where you have a set formation and you stick to that. Here, you can change it from week to week so you have to be flexible.”
For more challenging stuff which might catch him by surprise, there is always David Weir on the end of a telephone. Brighton’s loans manager is a Scottish Cup-winning former Hearts defender who knows exactly the kind of pressures that exist in Gorgie.
Cochrane also leans on his family whenever he feels the need. “I get messages from my family wishing me luck but I leave it down to myself. David Weir has been on the phone a couple of times to see how I’ve settled in. I’m sure he’ll send some messages before the game to wish me luck.”