FROM the moment Juwon Oshaniwa let slip to a journalist in his homeland that he was joining Hearts, there has been feverish anticipation among supporters of a bona fide World Cup defender arriving in Gorgie.
The 24-year-old certainly possesses a pedigree which Scottish clubs outwith the boundaries of Glasgow can seldom attract any more. As well as playing all four of his country’s matches at last summer’s World Cup in Brazil, he boasts an Africa Cup of Nations winners’ medal and has been linked to Celtic, Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday.
Even Robbie Neilson, generally circumspect and reserved, declared last week that he expects 14-times capped Oshaniwa to grow into one of the best full-backs in the country this season.
All the while, Kevin McHattie could be forgiven for feeling rather sidelined by the whole affair. He is the man in possession of the left-back jersey and has done little wrong during Hearts’ pre-season campaign.
A solid display in Hearts’ 1-0 defeat by a very capable Preston North End side on Saturday was a case in point.
Nevertheless there seems to be a tacit acceptance that Oshaniwa will automatically claim a place in the starting 11 – should the intricacies of Nigerian bureaucracy ever allow him to attain the requisite paperwork to arrive.
That only makes McHattie more determined to prove his worth to Neilson and he is adamant the former FC Ashdod defender will be in for a fight for a first-team spot.
“It’s great that we have more competition for places coming in,” McHattie said. “He [Oshaniwa] isn’t here yet but hopefully I can rise to the challenge and show the gaffer what I am worth. It’s similar to last year with Adam [Eckersley] and it will be another battle for the jersey this year.
“I just need to keep my head down and try to impress the gaffer in training. Everyone wants that place in the starting 11. It’s something you need to thrive off. To have that competition of a player with that kind of experience can only make you a better player.
“The main thing for me this pre-season was to stay injury-free and I feel as strong as I have for a while. We’ve been put through our paces, like last year, and I’m feeling good and determined to show what I can do.”
It would be no exaggeration to suggest this is a defining season for McHattie, certainly in terms of his future with Hearts. The young defender, who was among the players to take a pay cut during the dark days of administration, is in the final year of his contract at Tynecastle and desperate to stay fit enough to illustrate his quality.
He was restricted to 14 starts last term due to two separate knee injuries and, having regained fitness, found the consistent Eckersley immovable.
McHattie’s priority is to stay with Hearts in the long-term, but he is acutely aware his future entirely depends on whether he can sufficiently impress Neilson and director of football Craig Levein.
“It is a big season for myself and staying fit, first and foremost, is key. That is especially important when you only have a year left,” he continued.
“I’m really happy here. It’s a fantastic club and the fans turn out in their numbers for every home game. It is somewhere I am very content, but obviously things come down to the gaffer and he’ll have his own opinions. Who knows what will happen in the future?”
McHattie played the full 90 minutes as Hearts slumped to defeat against SkyBet Championship new boys Preston at Deepdale.
The only goal of the game came in comical fashion after 66 minutes – albeit Neil Alexander is unlikely to see the funny side. The veteran goalkeeper contrived to slice a wayward pass across the face of his own goal, allowing Joe Garner to head home.
It somewhat soured what had been an excellent display by the former Scotland goalkeeper, who made fine second-half stops to deny the excellent Garner and on-loan Manchester United forward Will Keane.
Hearts, who faded after the break, saw their best chance come and go on the stroke of half-time when Osman Sow fizzed a powerful shot just wide of the post from 18 yards.
Nevertheless, McHattie believes it was the perfect challenge ahead of their final friendly fixture against Everton next Sunday.
“They were a very good side, they passed the ball well. They have plenty of strength and pace – a bit of everything really,” added McHattie. “So it was a good test to come down and play against a quality team.”
Preston: Jones; Woods (Ryan 69), Clarke, Wright (Browne 66), Huntington (Heaton 85); Gallagher (Davies 66), Welsh (Little 66), Johnson; Garner (Anderton 69), Keane (Brownhill 66), Beckford (Hugill 66). Subs not used: James.
Hearts: Alexander; Paterson, Augustyn, McGhee, McHattie; Pallardo (Anderson 52), McKirdy (L Smith 85); Nicholson, Walker (El Hassnaoui 83), King; Sow (Reilly 60). Subs not used: Hamilton, Ozturk, Buaben, Oliver, Gomis.