Juwon Oshaniwa interview: My Hearts exile, Craig Levein talks, feelings of depression and his European dream

There is a slight delay on Juwon Oshaniwa’s telephone connection from Uyo, Southern Nigeria, to the Evening News. He has not been in touch for a while. Since being released by Hearts in June 2017, he has been slowly rebuilding his career back home.
Juwon Oshaniwa played 25 matches for Hearts before his departure. Picture: SNSJuwon Oshaniwa played 25 matches for Hearts before his departure. Picture: SNS
Juwon Oshaniwa played 25 matches for Hearts before his departure. Picture: SNS

The minor lag in mobile technology is a little irritation compared to the defender’s fight to restore his once-lofty footballing status. His chat takes a couple of seconds to arrive but he answers without hesitation. Especially on Hearts.

Oshaniwa is now 29 and seeking a move back to Europe after playing on a non-contract basis with the Nigerian Professional Football League club, Akwa United. His view of Scotland and British football is not tainted by what happened at Tynecastle Park, where he fell out of favour one year into a three-year contract and was released 12 months early.

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Supporters labelled him a flop and he went more than two years without a competitive appearance before joining Akwa this year. He remains a free agent without a contract, eager to sample European football again and add to his 17 Nigeria caps. “I am a positive person and I don’t believe in failure. When you fall, you get up again. That’s what makes you a man,” says the left-back.

“I cancelled my contract mutually with Hearts but it is not like I had a bad run with Hearts. The first year, I arrived after pre-season and the team still had the best defensive record in the league that season. We qualified for the Europa League. I played around 75 per cent of the games.

“I don’t know what came up along the line with the team, but I must be honest with you: It’s a team I love with all my heart. I wanted to play for them and I did play for them. There are lovely people there and a lovely environment. Edinburgh is a place I can never forget.”

He admits feeling depressed during those dark months at Riccarton with no hope of a place in Hearts’ first-team squad each weekend. He last played in maroon against St Johnstone on May 15, 2016. Faycal Rherras took the left-back berth that summer and Oshaniwa vanished from public view. “If you are not playing, you find it depressing, you find it so bad, you are unhappy. But I am a professional. You don’t stop, you just keep moving.

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“You can ask Craig Levein and he will tell you. I met with him in his office and I said: ‘What is the problem?’ He told me I had been 100 per cent professional. I don’t know what happened but I am not going to be the person to say: ‘I did not enjoy my period with Hearts.’ Not at all.

“They have got cool people and an accommodating city. I don’t have any cause to regret any moment when I was with Hearts Football Club. I don’t believe I should be happy when I am out of the team. When I don’t play, don’t expect me to be happy. Don’t think that means I will relax and give up because I have to keep moving. I have not reached the final bus stop of my career yet. I have better days ahead for another six or seven years.”

Oshaniwa treats his experience in Edinburgh as a life lesson. One he will rely on if that move back to Europe materialises. “Craig Levein’s response was positive and I reached an understanding with him. We cancelled the contract mutually,” he says. “It’s past, it’s bygone and I have left it behind. I don’t want to go back. I always try to be highly professional and I am not there to question anybody. I am there to do what I do best and I leave my agent to say: ‘Why is Juwon outside the pitch?’

“This is life. It’s a lesson. You need to sit down and analyse yourself and see where you get it right and where you get it wrong. Then you pick yourself up and that is a lesson I have learned. I am back here in Nigeria to make a positive correction and just keep going. I am Juwon and I know a talent was deposited in me by God. I will use it with everything I have.

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“It is not a fluke for me to represent a country like Nigeria, win the Africa Cup of Nations, go to the [2014] World Cup and play all the games for this great nation of 200 million people. I just need to pull up my head and go because life is up and down. It might not go the way you want but you don’t stop.”

The Godswill Akpabio International Stadium is some place. Akwa United’s home ground holds 30,000 spectators and has an Olympic-standard natural grass pitch. Football surfaces in Nigeria are mainly astroturf and that was a factor in Oshaniwa’s decision.

“Akwa United is one of the best clubs with the best facilities and a good managerial set-up. That is why I came to play competitive football last season but as a free player. I did not sign a contract with them. They are now preparing for a new season but I am waiting to hear from my agent. As things stand, I am a free player. If anything comes up, I can just move. Of course I would like to come back to Europe.”

The stereotype attached to African football is one of poor infrastructure, bumpy pitches and disorganisation. Oshaniwa built his reputation with Nigerian clubs Kwara United, Lobi Stars and Sharks before joining Ashdod of Israel in 2012. He does not deny the problems within his native league.

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“It’s true, you know. All the African countries are developing countries so you cannot compare the atmosphere and conditions for football in Africa with those in Europe. This is a fact that we cannot ignore. They are improving but they still have a long way to go. So many things need to be built on, like pitches and the welfare of the players.

“It was not difficult for me to go back because I played at every level in Nigeria. I started from scratch. Even though I played in the World Cup, I did not find it hard. I just switched on my mentality that I was back home and I could not get ahead of myself. I wanted to stand out so that other clubs would come for me and I can make my move again.”

Like parts of this phonecall, Juwon Oshaniwa sees the last couple of years as nothing more than a slight delay.