When it comes to offering advice to Callum Paterson about how to cope with a lengthy injury lay-off, Soufian El Hassnaoui is better placed than any of the stricken Hearts right-back’s colleagues present or past.
Paterson is likely to be sidelined into the start of next season after it was confirmed last week that he had suffered every footballer’s most dreaded injury – anterior cruciate ligament damage. The 21-year-old is likely to go under the surgeon’s knife at the end of next week and, after a period of rest and recuperation, will begin a lengthy and gruelling rehabilitation programme as he battles to get back to the level that allowed him to become a first choice for Scotland and a transfer target for a string of highly-profile English clubs.
El Hassnaoui, a team-mate of Paterson’s for two years before leaving Tynecastle last summer, spent seven months sidelined by anterior cruciate ligament damage as an 18-year-old and then, in a pre-season friendly for Hearts away to Preston North End in July 2015, he suffered posterior ligament damage which kept him out for around four months of last season. Having lost the guts of the last three years of his career to a wretched sequence of injuries, the Dutch-Moroccan can speak with authority about the mental challenges that lie ahead for Paterson.
“It’s not nice to hear what’s happened to Callum,” El Hassnaoui told the Evening News. “It’s come at a bad time because he was playing good, scoring goals and wanted to make a transfer to England, so the timing is not nice for him. It’s always hard for a football player when you get injured, but when it’s knee ligament damage, you’re talking about a long time out.
“I can’t explain what it feels like when you get told by the doctor that you have knee ligament damage. It was a bad feeling for me. It pushes you backwards and it’s not nice, but you just have to keep your focus.
“The first two weeks after the surgery is especially hard mentally. The first few weeks is about clearing your head and then after that you just have to pick yourself up and be stronger than the injury. All you can do is keep mentally sane and start your rehab. Once you start getting on the bike and doing some small stuff, you feel like you’re starting again.”
El Hassnaoui has already been in touch with Paterson to offer his sympathy. Having seen first hand how he emerged as one of Scotland’s most burgeoning young talents, the attacker is confident that his old team-mate has the mental strength to get his career back on track over the next year or so. “I had a good relationship with Callum at Hearts,” he said. “He’s a good guy. I went out for dinner a few times with him and Alim [Ozturk]. I’ve already spoken with him [since the injury].
“It’s a bad injury but Callum is a strong person with good people around him. It’ll be hard for him but he just has to stay strong and work hard to get fit again. He has not had many other big injuries, and that should help him get back quicker and stronger. I know for sure that he will get back to the same level. He will come back stronger.”
Meanwhile, El Hassnaoui (pictured) is battling to get his own career back on track. He hasn’t played a single competitive match since the day Hearts were handed the Championship trophy at home to Rangers in May 2015, and, by his own admission, hasn’t been able to operate consistently at peak fitness for the best part of four years. The last 18 months have been particularly demoralising for a man who arrived at Hearts on a three-year deal as one of the club’s first post- administration signings in June 2014. His first season in Edinburgh was badly disrupted by injuries and his second was a total write-off, with the aforementioned knee injury followed by a frustrating groin problem.
“I recovered from my knee injury quite quickly [last season] but then as soon as I got back, I had a groin injury which they couldn’t get to the bottom of at Hearts,” he said. “But when I came back to Holland in the summer I got it sorted pretty quickly because it turned out it was just a stretch of the groin. It was really hard because I was struggling at Hearts with a groin injury for five months after the knee injury and it turned out it wasn’t that serious.”
It came as little surprise when El Hassnaoui and Hearts parted company last summer, a year before his contract was due to expire. Despite his injury troubles, he enjoyed his time with the Edinburgh club, for whom he scored four goals in 18 appearances.
“I understand the opinion of the club, it was time for something else,” he said, with regard to his Hearts exit. “I enjoyed my time there. Hearts were the nicest club I have played for. I still have contact with a lot of the guys there, like Alim, Arnaud [Djoum], Jamie [Walker] and Callum. I made some good friends there. I was frustrated because I travelled a long way to live in a new country and show what I could do, and I wasn’t able to do that. I was very disappointed.”
At 27 years old, he is in need of an upturn in fortune. Even after leaving Hearts in the summer and rediscovering fitness, there was another untimely break on the way. “I went back and forth between Holland and Morocco in the summer,” he said. “I was about to sign for Roda JC about four months ago but then someone stepped on a my toe and broke it when I was on trial with them. I’ve not that been lucky in the last few years!”
Now fully fit again, El Hassnaoui yesterday flew from Holland to Morocco for some warm-weather training as he bids to fix himself up with a new club this month. “I was out for two months with the broken toe and then I had to train for a couple of months to get fit, but feel strong now – I feel like I am stronger than at any point when I was at Hearts. The most important thing for me now is to start playing games again because I have lost a lot of time out of my career.
“It has been tough mentally but I think I’m a strong person and I’m also a religious person, so I believe in fate. Everything that has happened to me has happened for a reason. I’m in Morocco to train for a few weeks and then I will decide where to go next. I have some options in Morocco and in Holland and in a couple of other countries. I will do whatever my feelings tell me to do.”