Amid the raft of full internationalists and players with experience of top-flight clubs across Europe who have arrived at Hearts over the past month, Dylan Nguene Bikey can comfortably be deemed the club’s most unheralded January recruit.
Nonetheless, the signing of the 21-year-old French forward holds plenty intrigue. As recently as three months ago, Bikey was out of the game and in need of a break after leaving French fourth-tier side Dieppe last season. Just ten days ago, he was playing for a side in Scotland’s fourth tier. On Sunday, he found himself on the substitutes’ bench at Celtic Park for the highest-profile match in the country just two days after sealing a surprise move to Hearts. His rise to prominence this winter owes everything to a stunning two-month stint at Stirling Albion, where he made an instant impression on everyone at the club, and evidently those further afield, by scoring nine goals in as many games.
Blair Henderson, who partnered Bikey in attack before losing his place to the French speed demon, felt it was clear from the outset that the former Nantes youngster was too good for Stirling Albion.
“You always get a lot of trialists coming and going, but the first night Dylan was in training with us, you could see he was different and he’d be asked to stick around,” Henderson told the Evening News.
“In his first game at Wick [in the Scottish Cup in early December], he came off the bench and scored straight away, and then in his first start against Berwick, he scored two with his left foot, so we’re all standing back and thinking ‘this boy’s pretty good’. He stood out in most games he played.
“I couldn’t get a game because he was playing and scoring in virtually every game. I don’t know what level he played at in France, but it was obviously a higher level than here because you could see straight away that he had a lot more technical ability than everyone else in the league. He scored nine in nine – that type of form deserves a move, especially considering he’d just come into a new environment and a new style of football. Everyone could see he was too good for this level.”
In light of Bikey’s eye-catching form, Stirling Albion games started to attract more scouts than usual. By the time it came for him to make his big move, he had plenty options. One of those was Hibs, whom he trained with last week. Instead, he ended up signing for Hearts until the end of the season, with the perception that he snubbed their city rivals instantly endearing him to his new supporters.
“I’m not surprised there was interest in him,” said Henderson.
“After his first couple of games, he had people watching him. Word gets round, and then when he goes in to train with Hibs, more people take notice.
“Hearts have obviously come in and snapped him up, and they play young players, so I think it’s a good move for him. I don’t know if he’ll go straight in and start but he’s definitely got a good chance to prove himself and try and win a longer contract.”
Henderson is familiar with the environment Bikey has headed into as he spent some time on trial at Hearts when Gary Locke was in charge in 2013. The 22-year-old Scot knows it will be a test of character for the Frenchman to hold his own among established professionals, but expects him to cope better than he did.
“He should know himself that he was too good for this level, and the confidence he got here should help him go in and make an impression at Hearts,” said Henderson. “It’ll be hard for him, though. When I went, I was a youngster. It probably came too early for me to be training with the first team at Hearts. He’s a bit older, so he should be able to handle it better than me. Technically, he’s definitely good enough. He’s quick, he can finish, and he can hit it with both feet, so he’s got a really good chance at Hearts. It will just depend if he’s got the body strength and the mentality to play at that level. I think he can do it, and I really hope he does.”
Stirling manager Dave Mackay explained how he came across Bikey in November. “It was through an agent,” said the former St Johnstone defender. “I don’t know how he ended up over in Scotland. He was obviously on the lookout to come and play in the UK. I went to see him in a bounce game at Stenhousemuir and you could see straight away he had something about him. We got him in to train with us for a couple of nights and he stood out like a sore thumb so it was an easy decision to sign him.
“We gave him an opportunity and a shop window, and he earned his move off the back of it. It’s unfortunate that we only had him for a couple of months because we could have been doing with him for the rest of the season, but we’re fine with him leaving because it was in his contract. We knew that if he did well, it was always going to be the case that he would move on. There were loads of teams watching him over the past month or so, so we knew he was going to be heading off. I know they [his representatives] were talking about getting him to a Championship club originally because they felt that might be a better level for him. It’ll be tough for him going into Hearts, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t be a success, whether it’s this season or next season. Certainly full-time coaching will benefit him and he’ll get far sharper training with a good team.”
Mackay believes Bikey has all the raw attributes to succeed in the Scottish Premiership, but explained that there are a few rough edges to his game that Hearts’ coaching staff will have to iron out first. “When he’s on the ball, he’s always a threat,” he said. “His pace is electric, and that’s always going to stick out at this level. Even at the top level, pace can allow you to cause havoc. He’s got two good feet, he can finish. He’s very direct and likes to take players on. We played him either wide of a front three or up through the middle. For me, he’s best drifting in from the left on to his right foot. He got a number of his goals for us playing that way, so it’ll be interesting to see where Hearts see him playing.
“He’s a strong boy with a good physique. He maybe looks skinny but he’s certainly not. He’s got a good build about him. If he can handle getting kicked about the place in League Two, he’ll be able to handle it at the top level. He has to add to his game in terms of when the team don’t have the ball and his game intelligence, but that will come with full-time coaching. It’s difficult at our level when you only get an hour and a half twice a week with the guys. You don’t get time to take players individually and work on their weaknesses. It’ll certainly bring him on being at a club like Hearts. Once he adds a couple of bits and pieces to his game, he can be a real asset for them.”