Title chasing with Hearts not possible on half measures

Prince Buaben is relishing the intense training sessions. Below, Alim Ozturk, Buaben and Soufian El Hassnaoui share a joke at Riccarton
Prince Buaben is relishing the intense training sessions. Below, Alim Ozturk, Buaben and Soufian El Hassnaoui share a joke at Riccarton
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Days of footballers piling into snooker halls, bookies and pubs of an afternoon are over. Professionalism has taken hold in Scotland and it’s here to stay.

Championing it louder than anyone are Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson at Hearts, where double and even triple training sessions are now commonplace.

A morning session, a gym workout and then afternoon training provide a triple whammy for the Riccarton squad on a regular basis.

Levein, the club’s director of football, and head coach Neilson invest heavily in fitness and their plan is reaping dividends. Hearts are six points clear of second-placed Rangers at the top of the Scottish Championship and continue to steamroll over opponents. After Saturday’s win at Queen of the South, their last three league results read 3-0, 5-0, 5-1.

Midfielder Prince Buaben, scorer of the second goal at Palmerston Park, is familiar with the intense fitness regime having played under Levein at Dundee United. For others, it takes some getting used to. Time off is at a premium but Buaben willingly subscribes to the Levein/Neilson theory that top teams work relentlessly to become not just match fit, but fighting fit. “Sometimes we do triple sessions. We come in early in the morning, do a training session, then go to the gym, and then we’re back out again in the afternoon for more training,” he revealed in an exclusive Evening News interview. “It’s hard but the afternoon sessions are all technical work. We work on shaping as well.

“I actually enjoy it. Sometimes it’s difficult but once you go through it you just enjoy the training. When I was with Craig Levein he used to do these sessions and I enjoyed it then. It’s something you need to keep you playing.

“I’m not going to lie, a lot of the boys moan about it, but that’s what you need. You just need to keep going and it’s working for us. I know it’s hard work but, as a professional, you have to keep your head and just keep going. If you do this type of training every week, you are going to be 100 per cent fit.

“For myself and for all the players, I just take it on board as a good thing. You want a day off, but what you gonna do on your day off? You’re just going to be at home, you know what I mean? Obviously, if you have a family, you’re going to spend time with them. For me, the extra sessions are good.

“If you look at some teams, they come in early in the morning, they train and then they just go home. That’s not enough. Our manager said he wants to set standards and he wants to change the game. I think he’s doing really well.” Buaben’s own fitness is showing marked improvement. He capped an outstanding display against Queen of the South with an impressive solo goal. The 26-year-old was inactive for three months over the summer after playing his final game of last season in April on loan at Partick Thistle from Carlisle United. He joined Hearts in July and began working to regain premium condition.

He is almost there now but, like the ever-demanding Neilson, Buaben isn’t quite satisfied. “I think I’m just about there but I still feel I can do more,” continued the Ghanaian. “The gaffer expects more from me so I’m just going to keep trying to get fitter and fitter. Hopefully I’ll be right back to myself again soon.”

He appeared back to his best rampaging through the heart of the home side to score at the weekend. That didn’t stop jibes from team-mates, who joked that the midfielder’s shot was nothing more than a toe poke. The man himself didn’t disagree. “The ball was running a little bit away from me so I had it in my head to just do something to get a shot in. It was there to toe poke so I toe poked it. As long as it goes in, it’s a goal. I was happy with it,” he smiled. “The goal comes from the whole team, it’s not just me.

“Big Osman [Sow] wasn’t just standing in one place. He opened up the defence [with a run]. I managed to get in the hole and just kept running. At first I was thinking to pass it through but as soon as it opened up.

“Queen of the South put a bit of pressure on us in the first 20 minutes. Like the manager said, that’s how it was going to be. They are a good side and they pass the ball well. We kept our cool and started passing the ball. That’s our game and I thought we did it well. I think we could have done better and that’s what the manager said after the game as well.”

The aim is simply to keep winning. Neilson wants performances of a high standard but, when push becomes shove, that is second on the priority list. Remaining top of the Championship throughout difficult winter months is a tall order but Buaben insists there is no pressure involved.

“I’ve never been in this position, this is my first time. I think the boys are doing really well and I don’t think there is any pressure on us. Everyone in the team are doing their jobs and that’s what the manager wants. The backroom staff, Stevie [Crawford], Jack [Ross] and the manager are doing an amazing job. They are telling us to keep calm.”