First interview: Hibs new boy Melker Hallberg has no derby fears after facing superstars Higuain, Eto’o and Mertens
It’s been a week where the players of both Hibs and Hearts won’t have been able to go anywhere without their respective fans reminding them, in many cases in the most vehement of terms, of what’s required in Sunday’s derby.
Given the current predicament of both sides – Hearts rock-bottom of the Premiership table and Hibs just two points better off – those pleas will no doubt have had more than a hint of desperation, this being the one time losing to “them” doesn’t bear thinking about.
And although he’s only been at Easter Road for a few weeks, midfielder Melker Hallberg knows full well the importance of the match, even if the Swede has been able to wander the streets of Edinburgh virtually unrecognised and, as such, spared the constant haranguing from supporters.
But, admitted, the 23-year-old, he would be more than happy if, come Monday morning, Hibs fans are slapping him on the back and saying “well done”.
Sunday may be head coach Paul Heckingbottom’s latest signing’s first taste of an Edinburgh derby but, insisted the much-travelled player, he’s got the experience to cope, pointing to a CV which includes spells in Italy’s Serie A, Norway, and Denmark following on from a debut for Swedish side Kalmar at the age of just 16 - their youngest ever debutant. Two years later Hallberg was on his way to Italy, joining Udinese and facing stars such as Napoli’s Dries Mertens, Marek Hamsik and Gonzalo Higuain and Samuel Eto’o at Sampdoria.
Loan spells with Valerenga in Norway, Sweden’s Hammarby and Ascoli in Italy followed before Hallberg returned to Kalmar and then a season with Danish outfit Vejle BK. But now, having signed a three year deal with Hibs, Hallberg is taking a more long-term view of his career.
As someone who played first team football in the seventh tier of Swedish soccer as a 13-year-old, he said: “Yes, I’ve been around a few places - but from each of them I learned a lot, what it takes to make me as good as possible, to help me develop into the best player I can be. New experiences all the time help me learn.
“Going to Italy at 18 was a big move for someone of that age but I felt ready. It was a big jump, quality payers in a quality league. To be honest, it was awesome playing against he likes of Higuain, Eto’o and so on. They are great players but when you are on the pitch you just want to do well for your team.”
Hallberg admitted that looking back some might say he was too young to have made that move, but he insisted: “It was too big an opportunity to miss. Maybe now you can say it was too early, but I would say I got experience, I learned from both the players I played with and against, and everything around in my life.
“You have to experience it and I did it when I was young. I can take it with me my whole life. You have to see the positives. Maybe when I went to Italy it was not my plan to go on loan to three or four clubs, but I’ve learned a lot and I am ready to take it all with me into the next adventure.”
That, of course, is in Edinburgh.
Hallberg, who has played Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 football for Sweden as well as gaining three full caps in friendly matches, made his first appearance for Hibs as they were defeated 2-0 by Kilmarnock, a result which added to the pressure on Heckingbottom, now without a win since the opening day of the season.
But, revealed Hallberg, it was what the head coach had to say during an earlier visit to the Capital which convinced him to move to Scotland despite the fact Kalmar wanted him to return home on a permanent basis as his time in Denmark came to an end.
He said: “Going back to Kalmar on loan from Udinese was a good move for me at the time, my confidence wasn’t at its best. It was important for me although some will think it was a step back, going into my comfort zone.
“I regained my confidence, I am feeling good and strong again. Kalmar wanted me back after Vejle but I wanted to stay abroad. I came to Edinburgh at the end of last season to have a look around. Everything needs to fit and be right and eventually we figured it out. I liked the way the coach spoke, how he wanted to play me, how he wanted the team to play.”
Well aware he has arrived at a tough time, Hallberg, who is equally happy as a No. 6 – “the protecting midfielder” – or a No. 8, the “box-to-box player,” said: “I am a busy player who can get around the pitch. The football is fast but the high tempo suits me and the physical side is no problem.
“I was happy with my debut but disappointed with the loss. We are only a few games into the season and everyone is doing everything to turn it around and have positive vibes again.”