Any player will extoll the benefits of regular minutes on the pitch, and Prince Buaben is no different as the midfielder looks to kick-start his second campaign as a Hearts player following another less than ideal pre-season.
The Ghanaian joined Hearts in the summer of 2014, becoming their sixth summer signing as they prepared to embark on an ultimately successful season in the Scottish Championship. Arriving at that stage meant the former Dundee United midfielder was playing catch up with his team-mates in terms of fitness, although an impressive goalscoring start to that campaign suggested he was up to speed.
He was then forced to sit out Hearts’ procession to the Championship title after requiring surgery on a broken toe sustained against Queen of the South in February, before returning to pre-season training in June. However, a hamstring complaint curtailed preparations for a return to the top flight, leaving the number eight short of match fitness.
Playing games appears to have Buaben approaching his sharpness once again after finding early matches tough going. Making his tenth start of the season in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Ross County, the midfielder put in a solid display as ten-man Hearts claimed a second successive win. Another 90 minutes under his belt – six in total for the campaign – did no harm, although playing the best part of 40 minutes with ten men made it a tough shift following captain Blazej Augustyn’s sending off. Buaben now believes he’s just about back in peak condition.
“I’ve always been behind in pre-season,” he told the Evening News. “It’s happened the last couple or three years. It’s obviously something I’d never wish for but it happened and I just have to get on with it and keep training hard every day.
“Every day in training I train hard, and the gaffer keeps pushing me. I push myself as well, trying to get back to my best; I just need to keep trying. It was obviously tough in the second half on Saturday, but big Blazej took one for the team so good for him. I told him well done because what he did for the team was really good – we won the game.”
The immediate aftermath of Augustyn’s dismissal required some reorganisation from Robbie Neilson, with Buaben finding himself temporarily in central defence until Liam Smith’s introduction allowed Callum Paterson to take over. Previously, injuries to Augustyn and now Alim Ozturk have seen Hearts’ backline comprised of differing personnel on several occasions this season. It’s a situation Buaben found himself in more than once during Hearts’ sojourn in the Championship.
Augustyn is available for tomorrow night’s League Cup quarter-final with Celtic but will sit out the trip to Partick on Saturday. With Jordan McGhee and Paterson the more obvious choices to fill in, it’s unlikely Buaben will be asked to play centre half again, but he revealed it’s not a daunting prospect if needed in an emergency.
“I don’t mind playing in defence,” he admitted. “I started my career in Holland with Ajax as a centre back so I know how to move about playing there. If the manager asks me to do a job there I can do it as best I can. I’m not saying that’s my best position but I’ll just try and do my best for the team.”
Buaben had a new partner alongside him on his usual midfield beat. Belgian Arnaud Djoum was given his first start and first taste of Tynecastle since joining on a short-term deal last month. The former Roda JC player not only disrupted Ross County’s attacking endeavours, but showed with a display that impressed the majority of supporters that he is creative.
“He did really well,” enthused Buaben. “Everyone’s really happy for him to make his debut at home. He’s a great player – very calm on the ball. He’s been waiting a few games for his chance and he got it on Saturday.”
The Jam Tarts now seem well stocked for central midfielders. Along with Buaben, his old mate Morgaro Gomis, Miguel Pallardo and Djoum, coach Neilson is assured of a solid midfield base. In Danny Swanson – another engine room colleague Buaben knows well – Hearts have something different to those previously mentioned in terms of being an attacking central midfielder.
Buaben is sure the latest addition of his former Dundee United team-mate Swanson will show just how good he is once fully fit.
“It’s just the old team back together!” he laughed. “He’s a guy I’ve played with before so I know what he can do. It’s been good having him here and hopefully he can do well for the team. From what I know of him, I don’t think he’s shown his best yet – Danny is better than what he’s shown so far. He’s also behind with his fitness so if he keeps training hard and when he gets as fit as he can, I’m sure he’ll show the fans what he can really do.”
What Hearts can really do this season remains to be seen. Neilson was quick to dampen any talk of title challenges with his team moving to within a win of Aberdeen and six points from league leaders Celtic.
They now face a run of league fixtures in which they may be expected to pick up close to maximum points, but Buaben wasn’t for divulging any internal expectations, short-term or otherwise. “It’s something the gaffer’s spoken about but I won’t give too much away,” he said. “We just want to get as high up the table as we possible can.”