More than four months after his last appearance in a maroon jersey, Prince Buaben is champing at the bit ahead of Hearts’ return to the Scottish Premiership.
The former Dundee United midfielder, such an influential figure in his side’s storming start to last season, had his campaign ended two and a half months prematurely by a broken toe. The injury, sustained in the first half of the 2-1 win at Queen of the South in February, meant Buaben was cast as a frustrated onlooker when his team eventually sealed the Championship title in March.
The only bonus to come from his enforced lay-off is that he is well-rested and bursting with enthusiasm for the task of ensuring he is in peak condition for Hearts’ top-flight opener at home to St Johnstone in just over a month’s time. The Ghanaian hopes to make his long-awaited return to action in Dublin tomorrow evening, when Hearts play their first friendly of the summer against League of Ireland Premier League side Bohemian at Dalymount Park.
“I’ve started pre-season with the rest of the boys, so I’m totally ready and feeling good,” Buaben told the Evening News. “I’ve had a good rest and now I’m going to work as hard as I can. The good thing for me is that we’ve got pre-season now so I can get all my fitness back. I feel good now so hopefully I can start well this season. I can’t wait for the Bohemians game because it’s been a long time for me personally since I last played. Hopefully I get some game time.”
Buaben was left shattered when the wind was taken out of sails at Palmerston at a time when Hearts were homing in on the title. “I was trying to clear the ball and I kicked underneath the Queen of the South right-back’s boot. It was an accident. I thought it might have been broken at that moment but I kept going for another 20 minutes [until half-time] which made it worse.
“At first we didn’t think it was serious then, after about two weeks, we realised it was a broken toe and I ended up out for the rest of the season.
“It was really hard mentally. Obviously we’re a team together but people don’t realise how hard it can be when you’re injured and watching the boys play. I had been a big part of it in the early part of the season and then I wasn’t able to be involved when we eventually won it, so it was very frustrating. You want the team to do well but at the same time you wish you were part of it. The main thing was that we won the league - that kept me going, so I was happy. I was still able to enjoy the celebrations.”
Buaben is hoping the celebrations continue for the Hearts support when the Tynecastle side make their return to the Premiership after an invigorating year in the Championship. The 27-year-old has played in Scotland’s top flight before with Partick Thistle, in an underwhelming loan spell in the second half of the 2013/14 season, and, more notably, with United, whom he helped re-establish as one of the leading sides in the country during a fruitful four-year spell between 2007 and 2011. He is confident the current Hearts team is well equipped to finish in the upper echelons of the Premiership this season.
“I’ve been in the Premiership before but for some of the other guys, like Miguel Pallardo and the new boys like [Blazej] Augustyn and Juanma, it will be a new challenge for them,” said Buaben. “It’s a good league and I think everybody will enjoy it. It’d be a big ask for us to win the league but I think we can finish really high up. With the players we have and the way we play, if we play at our best, we can beat any team. We went to Celtic last season and played well [in the League Cup]. If Osman Sow had scored the penalty [at 1-0], it could have been a different outcome [Hearts eventually lost 3-0]. I was speaking to the boys before about the Premiership. You get more time on the ball but you have to make your decisions quicker if you want to win games. If we keep the mentality we had last season, we can win games in this division.”
He is adamant that Hearts will feel inferior to no side in Scotland’s Premiership, champions Celtic included. “Myself, Morgaro Gomis and Neil Alexander have all played at a good level in the Scottish Premiership before so we know what it’s about and can give some tips and advice to the other boys to make them more confident,” he explained. “Every player here is a good player – they will all be comfortable in the Premiership. Miguel has played against teams like Real Madrid in front of more than 80,000 people in La Liga, so the Premiership shouldn’t be a problem for him. The younger players might need a bit of help but even then most of them have already played in the Premiership. The year they got relegated will be good for them. There is nothing for us to be afraid of.”
Hearts kick off the new campaign at home to St Johnstone on Sunday, August 2 and then don’t face last season’s top two of Aberdeen and Celtic until the eighth and ninth fixture respectively. Buaben believes Hearts can draw on their strong start to last season’s Championship, when they won nine of their first ten games and went unbeaten until January, as they aim to hit the ground running in the Premiership.
“The St Johnstone game is very exciting for me,” he said. “It will be an interesting game, but hopefully we can get off to a good start. I studied all the fixtures when they first came out and we’ve got a good run of games at the start. We don’t play the likes of Celtic or Aberdeen early on, but even if we had Celtic on the opening day we wouldn’t fear it.
“The opening games are always 50/50 because no-one really knows at the start of the season how any teams are going to do. We hope to make a strong start, like we did last year. We won at Rangers on the opening day last year and that was our season set. That gave us loads of confidence and from that game onwards we just kept going into every game wanting to win the next one. I hope we can keep that mentality in the Premiership.”
Buaben was thrilled with the way he started last season, as were his paymasters who swiftly converted his one-year contract into a three-year deal. He concedes that his form dipped in the winter as a niggling injury took its toll, but, with competition for a central-midfield berth from Gomis, Pallardo and Kenny Anderson driving him on, he is optimistic that he can perform to an even greater level this season than he managed in the swashbuckling early months of last term.
“I started really well last season and then I had a little injury problem,” said Buaben, who joined Hearts a year ago. “It was just minor but sometimes these things can really affect your play and your form can dip a bit. I went home and decided that I needed to step things up again but then I got injured pretty much straight away. Hopefully I can start this season even better than I did last season. I was happy with my form at the start of last season but we are stepping up a division so I will also have to step up my form a little bit because of that. Last season was one of the best I’ve had in terms of my form and I don’t see why I can’t get to that level again in the Premiership.”