Jorge Grant on leaving his comfort zone; European appeal of Hearts; and his Nottingham Forest and Des Walker connections
After coming through the academy system and making his professional debut at Nottingham Forest, Jorge Grant has heard all about about big European nights.
Ahead of his first personal experience of European competition this week, the 27-year-old midfielder expressed his hope that similarities between the City Ground and Tynecastle Park can help Hearts make a mark on the continental big stage.
The Tynecastle club’s Europa League play-off tie against Swiss champions FC Zurich is one of the main reasons Grant decided to pass up opportunities to play in England’s third tier this season in favour of a switch to Edinburgh from Peterborough United this summer.
"When I was making the decision, I could have gone back to League One and done the same thing that I've done for the whole of my career,” he explained. “This opportunity was something that is completely different. It was a step out of my comfort zone, playing in Europe and playing in the SPFL. I'm delighted with my decision. I've found it good, very easy to settle. All the lads have been great.”
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He has made a decent start, getting off the mark with a poacher’s goal against Dundee United on Sunday and collecting the sponsor’s man-of-the-match award after his display in central midfield alongside Cammy Devlin and latterly in a more advanced role. It was a performance that puts him in with a chance of a starting place ahead of Liam Boyce for the first leg in St Gallen – if Robbie Neilson opts for a slightly more conservative team.
Whether he’s in the first XI or on the bench, Grant will be ready. He is too young to remember Forest reaching the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup in 1995/96, their last foray into Europe. But he has heard enough about European football from his connections with former Forrest stalwarts Des Walker and Steve Chettle to know that they are matches to savour.
Progressing through the academy at a club famed for winning back-to-back European Cups under Brian Clough in 1979 and 1980, Grant couldn’t avoid the memories. European success stories are simply part of the furniture at Forest. They haven’t played in Europe since defeating Malmo, Auxerre and Lyon before being knocked out in the last eight of the Uefa Cup by Bayern Munich in that 1995/96 campaign. But memories at the City Ground don’t fade and there will be Forest fans who are dreaming of those heady days again after promotion back to the Premier League.
“That club has got so much history and you can tell that from the fans’ passion,” explained Grant, who made 20 appearances for the club in the Championship after breaking through but was unable to establish himself. “When I was there they were nowhere near that, but obviously they have gone on to do well, which is good for them.
“I know actually a few people who used to play in Europe [for Forest]. I know Des Walker. I know both his sons. I know Steve Chettle and his son, so I know about those European nights at Forest. To have some of those up here would be great.”
Walker actually never played in Europe for Forest because of a ban on English clubs following the Heysel Stadium disaster, but he did play in seven cup finals for them at Wembley, winning five. He played 59 times for England, including every game in the 1990 World Cup when they reached the semi-final. He had seven seasons of top-tier football with Sheffield Wednesday to add to nine at Forest and one with Sampdoria. Plenty of experience for Grant to tap into then, even though advice wasn’t forthcoming.
"Des Walker's son, Tyler, he was two years below me at Forest,” he explained. “When I made my debut it was at a similar time to him and we grew up through the system with each other. He and his brother are godfather to my son, so that's how close we are with his family. Both his sons want to come up and he loves golf as well, so he would be all over a trip to Edinburgh.”
"With Des, he always tried to stay out of [giving advice]. With his sons as well, he never wanted to be a burden on them. Because he's such a big name, he wanted them to make a name for themselves. He always tried to stay away from it, but he's given me the odd bit here and there. His son and that, they all speak to me. I've not been back to Nottingham since I moved up. It'll be nice to see him when I go back.
“There's a few crazy tales in there, he's a really nice guy. He spoke about memories and so did Steve Chettle. He was one of my coaches at Forest and was fantastic with me, talking about the stages he has played on and the experiences he has had – Europe being one of them.”
Chettle was at Forest during the European campaign in 1995/96 and perhaps relayed tales of how the roar of the compact City Ground crowd acted like a 12th man. Grant has played there and feels the similarities with Tynecastle Park.
"It's very similar to Forest, when I was there as a young player,” he added. “When the crowd is with you, it's a top atmosphere. Both that I've had in the league have been really good and enjoyable. You can tell it's a massive advantage having the crowd in a stadium like this. If we can go to Zurich and get a good result ... anything can happen at Tynecastle.”
Grant is looking forward to welcoming more members of his own family to experience it for themselves and watch him don the maroon shirt. "My missus and son have been up and hopefully my mum and dad are coming up not next week, but the following week, with nan and grandad, so it will be nice for them to see me play.
“It’s perhaps a shame they didn’t see him on Sunday, when he made a big impact on the game and popped up to score his first Hearts goal after the Dundee United goalkeeper spilled Michael Smith’s left-foot shot. Grant hopes there is many more to come but is mindful that he can’t rest on his laurels. Manager Robbie Neilson won't allow that from him or anyone else.
"It's nice to get off the mark,” he added. “I was hoping to get it as early as possible. Hopefully I can get some more now.
“At times we could have been better on the ball – sometimes we were sloppy in possession. We came in at half time and he told us in no uncertain terms that it needs to be better. We came out and it was a little bit better but there is still lots and lots to improve upon.”