Mark De Vries assesses new Hearts striker Soufian El Hassnaoui

Soufian el-Hassnaoui, left, is a good all-round player, says Mark De Vries, below
Soufian el-Hassnaoui, left, is a good all-round player, says Mark De Vries, below
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Signing an unknown striker from the Dutch second division might leave some Hearts fans feeling slightly indifferent.

Soufian El Hassnaoui, after all, would hardly have been a familiar name along Gorgie Road before he penned a three-year contract on Monday.

However, it is worth recalling that the last forward Hearts plucked from Holland’s second tier did not too badly.

Mark de Vries managed 33 goals in 90 games in Scotland after then-manager Craig Levein signed him from FC Dordrecht in 2002. His first start saw him score four in a 5-1 Edinburgh derby rout of Hibs, and from then on he was idolised by supporters. With Levein now back at Tynecastle as director of football, another foray into Holland’s lower leagues has produced El Hassnaoui.

The question fans are asking is what type of player are Hearts getting? It would be unrealistic to expect another De Vries but there is evidence that 24-year-old El Hassnaoui will offer a different attacking option. At 6ft, he is the tallest of four forwards jostling for position in Robbie Neilson’s new-look side – the others being James Keatings, Dale Carrick and Gary Oliver.

He is, however, extremely versatile and can play as a centre-forward, or in behind another striker, or even as a winger.

“El Hassnaoui is the kind of player who can open up a game,” explained De Vries. “He is a tall boy and he is pretty strong. He is quick and he is technical with a good touch. He can pick out a pass, deliver a cross and with his height I think he will score the occasional header.

“I don’t think he is the most powerful in the air but he is a decent player. From what I know of him, he’s the kind of player who works as part of a team and then, all of a sudden, he can do something different; he finds himself in front of goal quickly and he can score. He is the kind of player who can turn a game.

“I’ve seen him play and he will attract people to him. He is skilful, although I have not played in the league he is going to be playing in with Hearts. With his skills and his physique, he should be able to do it.”

El Hassnaoui was born in Ede, near Arnhem, in Holland to Moroccan parents. He holds dual nationality and was part of the Moroccan squad at the 2012 Olympics. His career began in the Dutch amateur Hoofdklasse league with VV Bennekom before he joined De Graafschap as an under-19 player. He progressed to senior level there and was lured to Sparta Rotterdam a year ago, from whom he joins Hearts.

Sparta’s failure to win promotion last month to Holland’s Eredivisie worked in Hearts favour. They lost in the play-offs, ironically to De Vries’ former club Dordrecht, and El Hassnaoui was told he had to find a new club. As one of their highest earners, his salary became unaffordable without a place in the top flight and the television and sponsorship revenue which accompanies it. The striker quickly swapped the Dutch second division for the Scottish Championship when Hearts offered a three-year deal.

“Sparta play in the second divison in Holland. I came from the second division in Holland as well. I don’t think the style is that much different,” continued De Vries. “Everybody can say that the style in Scotland and England is kick-and-rush but I don’t really believe that. We played a lot of good football when I was at Hearts. We always tried to play.

“We didn’t make it easy for the opponents because, if they were putting pressure on us, then we couldn’t play so we didn’t try to keep playing. We just looked for me and gave me an opportunity to do something with the ball, to keep it or bring it down for Andy Kirk or for Jean Louis Valois.

“I don’t think there is a lot of difference but I think the mentality is different. In Holland, we try to play football until we run into problems. If you keep playing, keep playing, keep playing, then one day you will come into trouble. In Scotland, the first thing they want to do is play. If they can’t play, why try? Just put the ball up front and let the other team deal with the problem.

“It’s good to see Hearts are still looking to Holland for players. People told me I was the first Dutch player at Hearts, so I must have done something well for my old gaffer [Levein] to keep looking over here. When I look at a player in Holland, I always try to judge if they would be able to play in Scotland. I’ve seen a few players and I think I know what the gaffer would be looking for. I think Hearts have made a wise choice with El Hassnaoui.”