Thrashing Rangers perfect Hearts start for Tasos Avlonitis

Tasos Avlonitis' last taste of competitive football before he played for Hearts against Rangers in midweek was in May
Tasos Avlonitis' last taste of competitive football before he played for Hearts against Rangers in midweek was in May
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Tasos Avlonitis is a centre-back with a pedigree but came to Scotland to improve his qualities. Staying beyond the end of his four-month Hearts contract is another of the towering Greek’s key targets.

He was one of three Hearts debutants in Wednesday’s rousing 4-1 victory against Rangers – his first match since May last year. He is in Edinburgh to make up for eight months of lost time after spending the first half of the season inactive and frustrated.

Avlonitis, 27, gives the Tynecastle management team options in a key defensive area, with John Souttar’s Achilles injury likely to sideline him for the rest of the season. The new recruit is pretty familiar with injuries himself. An abdominal complaint left him unable to train properly or find a new club after terminating his contract at Olympiakos in September, hence the wait to return to action.

Hearts took a chance on a player with experience of reputable European leagues in Greece and Austria. He arrived with a strong background and intends to make the right impression to earn that extended deal. For Avlonitis, the Ladbrokes Premiership is a land of opportunity.

He gave his first Scottish media interview to the Evening News and outlined his aims and objectives between now and May. “Celtic and Rangers are very big clubs. When you play these opponents, you want to beat them,” he said, demonstrating an instant understanding of the Scottish football landscape after Wednesday’s result.

“This is an experience for yourself and the fans. Scotland is a very good championship, a very strong championship. This will help me to become much stronger and much better than I played before.

“My contract is until the end of May but I hope I can maybe stay longer. I am confident, I am satisfied and I will give 100 per cent. After, I hope everything is going to be right and maybe I will continue here. You never know.”

His native league carries a reputation for being technical and unforgiving. Austria, where he spent six months on loan at Sturm Graz last year, is a similar environment. Avlonitis believes moving to Scotland is a useful chance to experience what he calls “real football”.

He got a fair taste of that on Wednesday and is now preparing for Hearts’ trip to Motherwell tomorrow for a 12.15pm kick-off. He doesn’t even mind the cold weather despite his tanned skin and Mediterranean outlook.

“I played for six months in Austria, 17 games. It was a nice experience and the climate is almost the same as Greece,” recalled the defender. “It was another country and another championship for me. Here, you have the opportunity to play real football. This is what I enjoy.

“I don’t have a problem with the weather. Yes, it is cold, but that helps you to play football. In Greece, in the summer, it is very hot so you cannot play. Football players can adapt to this weather in Scotland.”

Avlonitis came on as a substitute late in the game against Rangers and may again start on the bench at Fir Park. Hearts’ coaching and medical staff are conscious that his reintroduction to football should be gradual after such a lengthy absence.

“It’s strange for me because I have had many months without a game. I had an injury last year but now I am very happy to return. I want to give 100 per cent and help Hearts to reach our targets,” he explained.

“I had an abdominal injury last summer but, since October, I have been fine. I am 100 per cent healthy now. I came to Hearts and I am very satisfied with this move. It is a very good club and they gave me the opportunity to return to football. I can help them and they can help me.

“My last game was May 15 for Sturm Graz. I was on loan from Olympiakos and it was my last game for them at Austria Vienna. It’s a long time not to play. All this time, I was training because my focus was always on when I could play again. It’s strange to play an official game after so many months out but the fans, my team-mates and the coach helped me to adapt immediately.

“I asked some players in Greece and they told me Hearts was a very big club. I didn’t have the opportunity to speak with Takis Fyssas but I asked some staff at Olympiakos what they thought about Hearts. They told me it is one of the best clubs in Scotland. I am very happy to be with a big club.”

And equally happy with such an emphatic success on his debut. “The result was very good but, truly, I did not expect that score. I expected that we could win against Rangers because I believe in this team already.

“I have been here five days and I can see the passion in the eyes of my team-mates. I was sure we could win on Wednesday. The coach also told us to go on the pitch only to win.”

Hearts’ other debutants in midweek were the Portuguese striker Esmael Goncalves and Avlonitis’ compatriot, midfielder Alex Tziolis. They make up one third of the nine new recruits brought in by head coach Ian Cathro during January. The two Greeks are enjoying being colleagues after facing each other in their homeland many times.

“Alex and I know each other but we were never team-mates. We were always opponents when his team, PAOK Salonika, played Olympiakos. When I decided to sign for Hearts, I learned that Alex was also coming. That made me very happy because we are two friends.”