JUWON OSHANIWA is merely three games into his Hearts career, but he already feels a title challenge could be evolving.
Winning their opening four matches has sent confidence soaring at the Ladbrokes Premiership’s newly-promoted club. While some may believe keeping pace with champions-elect Celtic will ultimately prove too much, Oshaniwa is ready to put that theory to the test.
The Nigerian arrived on a three-year contract at the start of the month and has contributed to wins over Dundee, Motherwell and, most recently, Ross County. Add in the opening-day victory over St Johnstone, which he watched from the stand, and Hearts sit top of the league with a 100 per cent record in their first season back at the top level.
Oshaniwa stressed that he and his colleagues will remain ruthless in pursuit of more points. His ambition to be successful in Scotland is off to a lightning start and he sees no reason why it can’t continue. The winning mentality instilled by head coach Robbie Neilson has clearly rubbed off on the 24-year-old, who already knows a bit about footballing success having played for his country in last summer’s World Cup.
“I never had a bad thought about Scottish football,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “The team has gone ahead of ourselves as a project. We’re going to keep this going and keep working hard and make sure, at the end of the season, we come as the champions, the leader, to come out top and be successful. We will never relent.
“Four games have come and gone and now we face the reality of the next game. We put the first four victories behind us and face the next match. We take all the games one at a time. We’ve got a collection of young players, experienced players and a gaffer that is gifted. We are working together to attain our goal at the end of the season.
“In football, everything is possible. It just depends on your head, your determination, what you’ve already planned ahead for. We will continue to keep this up. We will never relent until we achieve our aim. Hearts are always a champion and this is the mentality we’ve got. This is the mentality the gaffer keeps imparting to us every time we play for Hearts. We always take this as a challenge. Whenever we go on to the field, we always want to give 100 per cent to make sure we achieve the maximum three points and see what the future has got for us. I want to believe, at the end of the season, we will come out successful collectively.”
From Nigeria to Dingwall is quite a journey, not to mention culture shock, and Oshaniwa is still adapting to new surroundings in Scotland. Leading the league with Hearts is making life much easier. Amid the open Highland countryside, he completed his third outing for his new club on Saturday looking increasingly assured at left-back.
The humble background to Ross County’s Global Energy Stadium was a far cry from Oshaniwa’s adventure in Brazil last year. He tussled with Lionel Messi in front of 43,000 fans in Porto Alegre, so facing Michael Gardyne amidst a crowd of under 5000 was quite a contrast.
“It’s normal in football, sometimes you take a step backwards to accelerate forward. For me, finding myself here is good,” he explained. “I never regretted coming to Scotland to play. Coupled with the experience I’ve got of the big occasions – I’ve found myself playing against some big players, arguably the best players in the world – I’m enjoying this. You just need to face reality and face what the future has got for you.
“I’m here at Hearts now and I’ve come to do what I know best. I will give to the team what God has deposited in me and see how far we go this season. We were aware it would not be an easy job at Ross County. The way our schedule has been, it’s been tight and we have played three games in a week.
“You know how it is. You could see us at the start on Saturday, we were running but the travelling had an effect on us. We were able to get our heads straight, stay strong and tight and achieve the maximum three points.”
Hearts withstood sustained pressure from Ross County in the second half to hold on to a 2-1 scoreline.
“That is why, as a professional footballer, you have to get acquainted to any situation you find yourself in,” said Oshaniwa. “Every game needs a different approach and this is what we have found. We are a ball-playing team so we always want to keep the ball. When the opponents change it, then we go back again and make sure we play for the success of the team.”
No midweek fixture gives Neilson and his players a chance to recover and prepare for this weekend’s visit of Partick Thistle. Oshaniwa’s motivation and enthusiasm don’t seem to wane, though.
“I’m a Hindu person. I talk with my family and relax with my girl. I’m okay. I recover quickly after games and I have no injuries.
“It’s another plus to get some rest now. We were forced to make some substitutions on Saturday that we maybe did not actually plan for. It’s bound to happen in football and when the schedule is like this, we need to manage ourselves. It’s no problem. We have a recuperation period this week and we will see how next week is going to tell on us.”