THE first Hearts appearance for Arnaud Djoum came as his side barricaded themselves in to claim a scoreless draw at Celtic Park in September. The Belgian’s first goal for his new team was plundered as the two clubs’ second meeting of the season ended in the Edinburgh side’s exit from the League Cup a month later. This afternoon at Tynecastle, the midfielder is hoping a first start against the Scottish champions can make his third taste of the fixture festive to his team for more than just scheduling reasons.
Life, in a “nice city and nice club”, is “good”, Djoum beamed the other day. The same cannot be said of results recently delivered by Robbie Neilson’s men. Arriving on a short-term deal, earlier this month the 26-year-old committed himself to Hearts until the summer of 2017. As he did so, Djoum made bold pronouncements about his club challenging a diminished Celtic for the title.
He may have been right about the vulnerability of Deila’s side to witness their European blow-outs and home defeat by Motherwell last weekend. On the domestic front, though, it is Aberdeen picking up the scent. Without a win since the first weekend in November, Hearts haven’t had much of a sniff, lying a distant third in the Premiership.
“There’s no one reason I can point to for us not having good results in the past few weeks – it’s been bad luck, small mistakes. Before I always said we shouldn’t be thinking about Celtic or the title – we need to focus on our ourselves and you can now see why,” said Djoum, in something of a volte face. “Maybe we were too focused on Celtic and the title. Small mistakes can creep in there.
“If we concentrate properly on each game and don’t think too much about the title it will be better for us.
“We are a young team and we don’t need the other distractions. We have to keep calm and work hard. If you dream so much it can bring too much pressure and make it difficult to play. Maybe it’s good that everyone has now calmed down and we just think about the games in front of us. We need to get back to the standard we had before, win some games and we’ll see where we are at the end of the season.’
Djoum has deftly handled his introduction to the Scottish game. The forward dynamism he brings to an area otherwise populated by deep-lying types has made him a continued bright spot as the landscape has threatened to become a little more grey around the promoted club. And grey is never a word that could be employed about a visit to Tynecastle by Celtic. The fixture throws up so much that is compelling, colourful and – on the fan front – crass.
“All footballers dream to be involved in matches like we have against Celtic, in a full stadium. It’s exciting. We want to show our public a good result. We haven’t had those in the last few games, and although we should have won more of them, we need to work hard. I didn’t expect to settle so fast but I’m very happy I am enjoying it so much and playing it like this. I’m happy for myself, the team and everybody.”
Djoum was largely on the periphery in the second half of last season as Lech Poznan won the Polish title. He moved there after six months with Turkish club Akhisar Belediye. His contentment then must be in feeling at home as last he did during five-and-a-half seasons with previous team, Roda JC, in Holland.
The Cameroon-born midfielder last lived and played in Brussels, the city of his upbringing, when a teenager but his ties to the Belgian capital continue to bind him. That is why he will greet Celtic defender Dedryck Boyata like a long-lost brother this afternoon, even if he hasn’t managed to hook up with his fellow Brussels product since both have been based in Scotland.
“It’s difficult for me to see him because we both have a lot of things to do,” Djoum said. “He is a good guy, a good friend of mine and I am excited to see him this weekend. I knew him when I was 17-18. He’s a year younger. When you come from the same city and play against each other you have a good connection. I know his father too. I have watched a few of his games at Celtic and I think he is doing well. It has not been so easy for him because he came from a long period where he was not playing at Man City. Now he has come here and started to play. He is a very good player – strong and defensively is very good. I think he will get better and better.’
Djoum didn’t dwell when it was put to him that his Celtic goal – one of three in maroon – was netted late on from a corner as Celtic seemed to be easing to a 2-0 cup win. “I don’t think Dedryck was marking me but I was happy to score my first goal. I will try to do it again. We tried to fight against them but it was a difficult game. It’s the sort of match in which you learn what you need to do better, though I only played ten minutes or so.”
What Djoum has learned about Scottish football is that you need to give it welly. A phrase that the Belgian may not quite get even with linguistic skills that stretch to being able to converse in four languages. “Here it is more direct football. In Holland it is very calm. There the coach tells you the priority is to keep the ball before you attack. Here you have to try to score goals, not think so much about small passes. That is the big difference but I like it because there are more possibilities to score goals. That makes it easier. In Holland you might keep the ball for five or six minutes but nothing happens.
“The Aberdeen game [lost 1-0 at Pittodrie a fortnight ago] was really hard and that was the first time I have experienced that. It was really difficult for us also because a lot of our players are new to the Scottish game and it takes a couple of games like that to get used to it. It takes a match like that to know how we need to play against Aberdeen. I’ve experienced it now and I will know next time.
“Celtic are physical but we are also a strong team. For this game we shouldn’t just defend. When we get the ball we have to play lots of football because I don’t think Celtic like it when they are behind the ball. If we just kick it away it is going to come straight back and that will make for a very tough day. That’s what happened in the cup game. If we can play football they will be behind the ball and they don’t like it. We have seen that from them in Europe. We have to learn, analyse their team and try to get a good result.”