Hearts midfielder Mehdi Taouil knows if he doesn’t perform in the frenzied bearpit of Easter Road tomorrow, he’ll be letting down not only his interim manager but also a good friend.
Taouil and Gary Locke, who is set to take charge of Hearts for a third game in a row when they visit city rivals Hibs, go back a long way – almost six years to be precise.
As a result, the little Moroccan was already fully briefed on what the Edinburgh derby means to Hearts supporters well before he moved to Tynecastle from Kilmarnock at the start of last season.
During their time together at Rugby Park, Taouil, who based himself in Edinburgh, used to car-share to work with Midlothian boy Locke, among others. It was on these daily trips along the M8 that Taouil, whether he liked it or not, would be subjected to an all-encompassing education on Hearts.
“A long time ago we shared a car to training at Kilmarnock. Lockey spoke all the time about Hearts and sometimes about games against Hibs,” recalls Taouil. “At Kilmarnock, when we were playing Saturday and Hearts were playing on Sunday, he would go to the Hearts game on Sunday and speak only about that on the way to training on Monday.
“It was only Hearts he wanted to talk about. If you want a conversation with Lockey you have to speak about Hearts – and then you can talk. Since I’ve been here I’ve never met someone who loves Hearts as much as he does.”
David Fernandez, former Hearts player Grant Murray and ex-Hibs striker Colin Nish were among Locke and Taouil’s co-passengers on the commute from the east to the west. And Taouil insists Locke’s Hearts chat became so incessant on those journeys that he was boring the life out of his colleagues. “I told him all the time to shut up!” says Taouil.
“We used to argue about that. When it was my turn to drive I used to put my music up loud and he was not a big fan of my music. Now we laugh about it – I like hip hop and rap and he was not having it.”
Taouil admits it has been strange seeing Locke become head honcho at Tynecastle since John McGlynn’s departure a week past Thursday.
“It’s a bit weird as I used to play with him, then he was assistant and now he’s manager,” said Taouil. “Assistant is not the same as being a manager. As assistant he would come into the changing room and have a laugh, but since John McGlynn left and he is in charge he is a little bit more reserved and he doesn’t do it any more and that’s understandable, all the boys understand it is normal. You cannot have the same laugh with your manager as your assistant.”
Taouil insists there’s no chance of Hearts being found in the motivational department tomorrow, with Locke, one of the most diehard fans ever to play for the club, preparing them for the battle.
“He helps to get us really motivated for these games as he’s a Hearts fan and the derbies have meant a lot to him since he was a wee kid, so having him on the staff just fires the boys up. If he is the manager at Easter Road there will definitely be extra incentive for us to do well for him, but even if someone else comes in we’re going to have to do it as well – it’s the same.
“Everyone would be very, very happy for him, just as we were after Tuesday’s win against St Johnstone as he was in charge and we don’t know for how long he will be in charge at this moment. Everyone wants to give everything for Lockey. He’s not in a good mood if we lose to Hibs, so we want to avoid that. All the boys really appreciate him and really will give 200 per cent for him.”
As Hearts’ search for a new manager continues, with the likes of Peter Houston, John Robertson and Derek McInnes among the leading contenders, Taouil insists the whole Hearts squad are more than happy working under Locke’s charge at what is a crucial period in their season, with next Sunday’s eagerly awaited League Cup final against St Mirren following tomorrow’s derby.
In fact, the 29-year-old is adamant that his old team-mate ticks so many boxes that he should be a genuine contender for the Hearts vacancy on a permanent basis.
“I would be happy for Lockey if he got the job because I know he loves the club and how much he loves the place,” said Taouil. “I know he has all the qualifications as well to be a manager. I see some managers in Portugal or other countries who are really young, so I don’t see why here in Scotland the managers cannot be young. He knows the football and Scotland very well, but the board takes the decision – it’s not for me to take – but I’d be very happy if Lockey got this job.”
Taouil has already benefited directly from Locke taking the reins, having re-established himself in the starting line-up after falling out of favour in the closing weeks of McGlynn’s reign.
The former Kilmarnock player was originally a surprise omission for the League Cup semi-final win over Inverness in January, and found himself out of the starting XI for each of McGlynn’s last seven games. He has since started both of Locke’s games in charge and looks a good bet for a starting berth in next Sunday’s League Cup final – a state of play which seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago.
“I was not playing recently, but have been working very hard in training and didn’t stop working and then when they picked me to play I was ready and wanted to give everything,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about the possibility of missing the cup final too much; I was just taking it game after game and keeping working and training very hard. The cup final comes on March 17 and, for the moment, the most important game is the derby on Sunday and that’s really important and means a lot for us.”
With Hearts having lost their air of authority over Hibs this season – relinquishing their 12-game unbeaten derby run and failing to register a win themselves – Taouil knows tenth-place Hearts could desperately do with pulling out a victory tomorrow.
“It has been tough this season because a derby game is very important and the feeling when you win is fantastic and we have not experienced that this season,” he said. “We hope to do it this time. It’ll be tough, but we’ll do everything to win. The Hibs fans will think they are now the best in Edinburgh, but we will see on Sunday after the game.”