Title over injury comeback for Hearts’ El Hassnaoui

Soufian El Hassnaoui netted when Falkirk defeated Hearts in November. Pic: SNS
Soufian El Hassnaoui netted when Falkirk defeated Hearts in November. Pic: SNS
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Falkirk Stadium witnessed one of few happy moments for Soufian El Hassnaoui this season.

The Dutch-Moroccan scored a crucial goal in Hearts’ 2-1 victory there last November. He also struck against Livingston at Tynecastle in September, but otherwise has endured a campaign of persistent and frustrating injury problems.

As Hearts prepare to revisit Falkirk and face the only team to inflict a league defeat upon them under head coach Robbie Neilson, El Hassnaoui is far from downbeat.

He is finally fit after two groin operations and then a further three months out with a damaged ankle. He is excited at the prospect of playing a part in the final few weeks of the season after being restricted to a seat in stands across the country for much of his time in Scotland.

Hearts will be confirmed champions of the Scottish Championship this weekend if they beat Falkirk tomorrow afternoon and Hibs fail to take full points against Rangers on Sunday. El Hassnaoui is prioritising that possibility over his own frustrations.

His first year in Edinburgh has been disappointing on a personal note after his arrival on a three-year contract from Sparta Rotterdam. Nonetheless, he still feels a valued part of the progress made at Tynecastle due to the inclusive policy adopted by Neilson, his coaches and other players.

Another goal against Falkirk would be ideal, but the 25-year-old is realistic enough to know it will in all probability have to come from off the substitutes’ bench.

“I scored against Falkirk last time and I like the pitch over there. I’m confident in every game, it doesn’t matter who we play against,” he told the Evening News.

“I just need to play a little bit more to get my fitness back. The injury is okay, but I still need more time to get sharper and feel at my best.

“We don’t have time for that just now, we just have to win every week. Then we can see how we can do that in the summer. I need some games to get sharper but it’s okay.

“We just have to become champions as soon as possible, and after that we can make a plan with the coaches to get me as fit and sharp as possible for the pre-season starting in the summer.”

El Hassnaoui derives as much satisfaction as anyone from Hearts’ status as champions elect despite being restricted to a bit-part role because of injuries.

“I’m proud of the guys. Every week we keep on fighting and keep on playing. That’s our power,” he continued.

“I don’t feel apart from it. We are all one, even players who have not played. When we are training, some of the guys are going to play, but the guys who are not playing are training and making the others better every day.

“We are all one group. Of course, everybody wants to play. If you say you don’t want to play then you are not a football player. We are just one team and we are all together.

“My chats so far have been very good. The gaffer is good for me, Crawf [assistant coach Stevie Crawford] is good for me and the players are good for me.

“It’s hard being injured, but that’s the life of a football player. You can’t have a good season every season. I just have to work harder and harder.

“If we win the league as soon as possible, I can focus on my fitness for next season. It’s very important for me to do pre-season and come through it without injury. That’s in the back of my mind, but we still have to win every week first.”

Hearts ticked another fixture off the list on Tuesday night with a 3-1 win at Raith Rovers, in which El Hassnaoui played the final few minutes as a substitute.

Three points takes them yet another step closer to this season’s stated aim – automatic promotion back to the Scottish Premiership after a one-year absence.

“To be honest, this has been a hard season for me. I’ve had a lot of injuries so that would definitely mean a lot,” said El Hassnaoui. “Next season, if everything goes well, we will be playing in the Premiership. That’s where you want to be as a footballer, in the highest division.

“The pitch was hard to play on at Raith. People were trying to pass the ball and it was just jumping everywhere.

“That’s part of the game because you can’t play every game on a good pitch, but I think we did well. We kept our focus. It was even harder after the red card [for former Hearts striker Christian Nade] because they sat back even more than before.”

Only Hibs or Rangers can mathematically prevent Hearts winning the Championship now. Victory at Falkirk tomorrow would remove the Glasgow club from the equation, leaving Hibs requiring a win at Easter Road on Sunday to postpone title celebrations on the other side of Edinburgh for at least another week.

“To win a league title means a lot for every football player. You work all season for something and this is what we are working for,” said El Hassnaoui. “Every week we are fighting but we are still not there.

“We will not say we are the champions before it happens. We have to win at Falkirk and not watch what other people are doing.

“We want to win at Falkirk and win against Queen of the South next week and keep on going. Even if we do become champions, we will keep on going right until the end of the season.”

El Hassnaoui allows himself to momentarily look a few months into the future. By August, he intends to be fully fit and ready to make a serious impact in Scotland’s top flight. Next season is arguably the most important of his career so far. “That’s my plan. Other seasons were important in my career, but next season is a very important year for me.”

First, he must help his club complete a fairly significant campaign for their own resurgence after emerging from administration last year.

El Hassnaoui didn’t suffer the difficulties or hardship brought by Hearts’ financial collapse, but he is determined to help them return to a challenging position near the summit of Scottish football.