There is little chance of Tasos Avlonitis becoming flustered amid the Tynecastle frenzy tomorrow.
The 27-year-old Greek centre-back is one of 16 Hearts players who could make their first Edinburgh derby appearance when Hibs travel to the west of the city for a Scottish Cup fifth-round showdown. While it may prove to be a baptism of fire for some of the new faces on both sides, Avlonitis’s recent history suggests he is better equipped than most to take the chaos in his stride.
In his first taste of one of the most volatile derbies in Europe, the defender scored the only goal of the game within two minutes of coming off the bench for Olympiakos at home to deadly rivals Panathinaikos in front of 31,500 fired-up supporters in October 2014. The goal helped his team go on to win a league and cup double.
“I have good memories of the Athens derby because in 2014 I came on as a substitute in the game and with my first chance I scored the only goal,” he recalls of a match played, incidentally, on the same day Alim Ozturk, his predecessor in the Hearts defence, scored his famous 40-yard stoppage-time equaliser against Hibs at Easter Road. “The fans were singing my name and for me it was a dream. Nobody knew me before that game or expected me to score that goal because of the position I play. After everyone was speaking about me in the newspapers and it was the best moment of my career. The fans were crazy because we won.
“Everybody still speaks about this moment. Believe me, for the next week, anywhere I went I never paid. Before I had to pay. Afterwards, no! People still talk to me about that goal, always. On Instagram and Twitter, they make a word with my surname, Avlonitis, a Greek word that you can’t understand. They write to me all the time about the goal moment, all the time on my Instagram, my Twitter and also outside in cafeterias. They live about this [the derby].”
In what would have been Avlonitis’s second and final experience of the bitter Athens showdown, a year later, the match didn’t even take place after his team-mate, Alfred Finnbogason, was struck by a flare thrown by Panathinaikos fans while the visiting Olympiakos players walked around the pitch prior to their warm-up. After it was announced that the match had been called off, the home fans invaded the pitch to riot before the violence spilled out on to the streets around the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium. Olympiakos were duly awarded a 3-0 victory.
“When we went outside, immediately there was fire and one guy [Finnbogason] was burned here [on the leg],” said Avlonitis. “He went down and burned his uniform. This was before the game when we walked out from the tunnel to see how the pitch was. The police and the referee saw it and told us to go inside. We stayed there for two or three hours I think until people said we could leave.
“It’s a war there [in Athens], believe me. They want to win only this game [the derby]. The fans have gates in every area to keep them away from each other. They fight in the streets and they hate each other – they hate each other, believe me. And this puts even more pressure on to the players when you hear about this. It is terrifying. When you play, you feel pressure before the match starts because you know the fans are like this. Sometimes you are scared maybe something will hit your head.”
Given his background, Avlonitis knows how important it is to emerge victorious in a derby. Asked what the consequences are for players in Greece if they lose to their bitter rivals, he said: “You don’t go outside, it is no joke. If you do, maybe the fans will come up to you and touch you or shake you and say: ‘Come on, why did we lose?’
“Maybe Olympiakos is first in the league and Panathinaikos is fifth, and we know that Panathinaikos can’t win the title at this moment. But their fans will want Panathinaikos to win only this game. Only this game. But we as players must forget about what they say and we must be focused.
“I never think, 100 per cent truly, about ‘if I lose...’ I go inside and look at things I have to do and if I do them I will win, so I never think about this. Maybe, in football, you can be much better, you can make 100 actions and still one moment by the other team means you can lose, and if you lose fans won’t be happy. This is normal, of course.”
Avlonitis knows the stakes are high for both Hearts and Hibs tomorrow, but he anticipates the Capital derby in Scotland being slightly tamer than that in his homeland, certainly in terms of the way the supporters behave. “Here or in England, it’s nice for the players to play in a good atmosphere but not be afraid of being hurt,” he said. “It’s dangerous [in Greece].”
Having felt his way into life at Hearts with a substitute appearance in the 4-1 win over Rangers and a 90-minute outing in the 3-0 victory at Motherwell last Saturday, Avlonitis would love to mark his arrival in Edinburgh by adding another derby winner to his CV tomorrow. “I want to score so much,” he said. “But, believe me, the most important thing is that the team wins. OK, whoever scores is a hero, but the most important thing is the win because 11 players, or 14 with the substitutes, do the hardest job. They all deserve it, not just one. The goalkeeper, the coaching staff, the players, the defence, everybody. Most of the time, the striker scores but the defenders and midfielders have worked hard so the striker can score. The job is for everybody not just one person.”
Avlonitis, who signed for Hearts only 12 days ago along with countryman Alex Tziolis, has settled in well at Hearts. “I like it here,” he said. “The players, the coaching staff are so warm. It’s like being a member of a family. So for me, it was very easy to adapt. Sometimes in the beginning when you go to a new team, you want some games or some weeks to find your steps, but here I want to thank everybody. They have been very good for us, very warm in putting us in the Hearts family.”