One little corner of northern Europe is underpinning Hearts’ promotion push. It is a region Craig Levein knows well.
The Netherlands has produced five players now heavily involved at Tynecastle as director of football Levein and head coach Robbie Neilson mobilise their network of Dutch contacts. The sizeable gap at the top of the Scottish Championship proves it is a fruitful policy.
Soufian El Hassnaoui, Alim Ozturk, Prince Buaben, Genero Zeefuik and Kenny Anderson have added the proverbial Dutch of class at Tynecastle having emerged from various youth academies across the Netherlands. Only last week, Anderson crossed the North Sea from RKC Waalwijk to sign an 18-month contract. He headed a vital goal on his debut as Hearts beat Livingston 3-2, and the collective impact of the Dutch colony in Gorgie is just as impressive.
Ozturk is a cult hero amongst supporters after a 40-yard equaliser against Hibs. He grew up at AFC ’34 and played with Groningen and SC Cambuur before a brief stint at the Turkish club Trabzonspor last season. Buaben is a graduate of the famous Ajax youth academy but is better known in Scotland as a Scottish Cup winner with Dundee United. He is now a key figure in the Hearts midfield.
El Hassnaoui has yet to hit top form in an injury-hit campaign but showed plenty potential in his homeland with De Graafschap and Sparta Rotterdam. Zeefuik has scored four goals in four games since arriving on loan from Groningen last month and, like Ozturk, is a popular figure already. Early signs are that the attack- minded Anderson will be another astute signing.
Levein’s ventures into the Dutch market are nothing new, of course. As a manager with Hearts, Leicester City and Dundee United, he would enlist contacts in the Netherlands to source players with sound technical ability who could cope with the ferocity of British football. It is a fine balancing act but one which Neilson also appears to favour.
The network being used is expansive, from agents to coaches, managers and technical directors. Mark de Vries, arguably Levein’s best Dutch signing, is also involved. He initially recommended Zeefuik to Hearts and explained the merit in his former club continually returning to the Netherlands in search of fresh talent.
“Knowing Craig and Robbie well, these guys are both very clued up. They don’t go signing players if they are not totally certain,” said De Vries. “I think Craig’s network is really big but the football world is really small. From what I know of Craig, it starts with your work ethic. If you don’t work hard you will get nothing. That’s the basic principle. You need to work just as hard as your opponent or you won’t win the game.
“In Holland there are lots of players who can play football really well, who are technically gifted and well coached, but a lot of them are missing that fire in the belly. I think that’s one of the things Craig is always looking for as well. He is looking for the perfect mix of all those things.
“I was over in Edinburgh for the derby at New Year and I spoke to Robbie before the game. I was supposed to meet him for a meal but my flight was delayed. I spoke to him when I got there and he said he was looking for a striker. I said I knew someone and I gave him Zeefuik’s name. I think John Murray [Hearts scout] already had him in his system so it was a done deal. I think me mentioning his name made it a little bit easier for them to decide and get him over.
“If they want to know or need to know anything, they have my number and I will always help them with these players. I think I understand what they are looking for and I can point out a few players who would fit into the Hearts team.”
Not that there is any prospect of a Dutch overload at Tynecastle. Levein and Neilson are keen to keep the majority of their squad Scottish and also want to utilise home-grown young players from the Riccarton youth academy. Still, peppering the playing staff with an Oranje influence is working well.
“I think Craig and Robbie are smart enough not to bring a whole Dutch team in,” continued De Vries. “The identity of Hearts is Scottish and it should stay like that because fans come to the games to see the Scottish boys. If you can add something different to the team, whether it’s Belgian, Dutch, French, Spanish, Chinese or whatever, if the player is providing something then why not?
“When I joined Hearts [in 2002], you didn’t see many Dutch boys go to Scotland. The ones who went were Ronald and Frank de Boer, Bert Konterman, Arthur Numan – big players who were in the national team. Younger guys wouldn’t really go to Scotland but recently a lot of them are making these steps to lower leagues in England, Belgium, France and Scotland.
“They know they can play some good football in Scotland but also they are looking at England and they may get a better chance to move there. I signed a long-term contract with Hearts because I wanted to learn a lot and I did learn a lot. After a year and a half, I started to realise there was a possibility to go to England. In the beginning, I just wanted to make sure I became a better player at Hearts.”
Anderson’s immediate impact at the weekend made the news in his homeland. “There has been some media attention but because it’s the second division in Scotland it’s not as big news as the top division,” admitted De Vries. “I think Hearts have signed some good players from Holland. Like I said, they’ve got my number. If they need anything, I’m happy to help out.”
The Netherlands is the world’s second largest exporter of food and agriculture products. For Hearts, it is an excellent source of good footballers too.