Hearts head coach Ian Cathro once warned that Esmael Goncalves needed breathalysed before training. That was back in the day when he was at Rio Ave with the striker and his current assistant manager Austin MacPhee was keen to bring the wayward talent to Scotland.
After deciding that the off-the-field risks were worth it to land the on-field talent, MacPhee tells the tale of how he resorted to dragging the Portuguese man along to a family party so that he could keep an eye on him and prevent him sabotaging his debut for St Mirren, against Celtic, in a League Cup semi-final, the following day.
Having signed for Hearts this week, the player, who cost the capital club €200,000 (£170,000), insists he is a changed man, and his gaffer believes him. Contracted until 2020, Goncalves, returns to Scotland with the hope of another big game debut, as the Tynecastle side welcome Rangers tonight. But there was no need to babysit him last night, not when family life has played its part in taming his more reckless tendencies.
“I am very different,” said the man who scored eight goals in 16 appearances for the Paisley side and helped them to League Cup glory against Hearts back in 2013. “At that time I was young. I didn’t care about how I lived my life. Now I have a wife, I have a baby, it is a different life. Now it is just about the football. I am ready to settle. It is the right moment.
“The moment I met my wife [Lucia] and then I had my baby boy [Santiago] I started to think that I must stop doing these crazy things and begin to think more like a man, not like a boy.
“There was the football also. You do come to a moment when you think, ‘It’s now or never’. You can have talent, you can be amazing and have everything you want, but if you don’t have your head in the right place then you will never achieve anything.
“A lot of people told me to stop what I was doing, to be clever and think about your life. I never listened and then came a point when I thought ‘This has to stop and I have to start working.’”
That realisation is what made him so attractive to Hearts, according to Cathro, who describes him as “a powerful striker who will run with the ball, run without the ball and he will directly go up against and attack centre backs”. Most importantly, he says “he will make the ball go in the goal!”
That promise has always been there but life and some poor decision-making have prevented him fully achieving his full potential, so far.
“Isma was at a point four or five years ago when he was going to be the ‘next one’,” explained Cathro. “But for a number of reasons that never panned out in that moment. But I believe entirely that now he has another one of those big opportunities. And this time, on a personal level, he is ready for it. That’s the reason we have made the effort to bring him here. It’s because he is ready for it.”
With eight other acquisitions during the transfer window, there is a lot of melding to be done, but his past working relationship with both Cathro and MacPhee is enough to convince Goncalves that the management will be able to find the right balance, saying that every new signing will have been brought in with an overall picture in mind.
“It can be difficult because you’ve got to get to know each other in a short space of time. But, if you have the right players, they can understand one another and the manager will choose the right ones,” added Goncalves.
“Ian was very good when we worked together before. He is intelligent. In Portugal it was Ian who worked on a lot of the tactics and took training as well. He was young but even then you could see he would go far.”
While some of the newcomers will have to bide their time, neither player nor manager see any reason why Goncalves could not be pitched in straight away. With experience of scoring in Scottish football and on the back of 10 goals in 14 games with Cypriot side Anorthosis Famagusta, he comes to the capital match-fit and hungry to help the team claw back some of the 11 points separating the Edinburgh side and second-placed Rangers.
“I have been playing so I’m fine,” said the 25-year-old. “I scored against Celtic on my debut for St Mirren and I love the big games. If I play against Rangers it will be another big game for me.”