Ryotaro Meshino interview: ‘I can make a difference here if Hearts can find a way of getting me the ball’

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It turns out now is the perfect time to have arranged to meet Ryotaro Meshino.

Not only has he just received word he has been called up to the Japanese Under-22 squad for a friendly against Brazil later this month, he has recently enjoyed a makeover.

Hearts' Ryotaro Meshino sporting his new blond hairdo. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Hearts' Ryotaro Meshino sporting his new blond hairdo. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

He’s opted for a ‘Sergio Aguero’, his new team-mate at parent club Manchester City and someone he hopes to play alongside one day. He knows he must first continue standing out while on loan at Hearts, over and above his new peroxide crop cut.

“I am normally black hair, I don’t like black hair,” he says. “I prefer blond.” Asked who he hangs about with at Hearts, he mentions “Sean”, Jake” and “Hickey”, generally the younger members of the squad. So, which of these characters was behind the idea to dye his hair?

“Christophe!” he announces, slightly surprisingly. The 34-year-old skipper is surely beyond such fripperies now. Berra’s friend runs a hair salon, Meshino explains, which is where the deed took place. He’ll debut the new look against Kilmarnock this afternoon.

Perhaps this is what happens when you land in a strange town a long, long way from home. Few will know what it’s like to cope with such an extreme lifestyle shift at this tender age. Not to mention the expectation heaped on Meshino’s young shoulders.

Ryotaro Meshino celebrates the win over Hibs at Easter Road. Picture: SNS

Ryotaro Meshino celebrates the win over Hibs at Easter Road. Picture: SNS

His wife is due to join him in Edinburgh later this month, as is his mother for a visit. They will both arrive in time to watch him against Rangers after the international break.

But he needs his favourite Adidas boots before then. He’s waiting on a package from his mum, containing the vital footwear, as well as those other essentials – “food and warm clothes”.

During the course of the interview, he receives word the parcel has arrived at Riccarton, Hearts’ training base. He visibly brightens.

His family seems a good place to start. He has a little brother, Soma, who, at 18, is following in his footsteps in the Osaka Gamba youth team. His father was an amateur baseball player.

His parents stay up late to watch Hearts games on Hearts TV or get up early in the morning to watch evening matches, such as last week’s Betfred Cup win over Aberdeen. He enjoys shopping on George Street and Princes Street. How does Edinburgh compare with Osaka?

“There are more skyscrapers at home,” he says, reasonably. Hearts are doing all they can to take advantage of Meshino’s arrival, launching a part of their website that’s dedicated to him and which, for the benefit of the expected rise in those logging on in the Far East, begins with the basics: “Welcome to Heart of Midlothian, whose home is one of the world’s most beautiful cities – Edinburgh, Scotland”.

He is staying at a club-provided flat previously occupied by Demetri Mitchell, another recruit via Manchester. Meshino cooks for himself twice a week and dines out at the popular Harajuku Kitchen in Tollcross area of Edinburgh on other evenings. “The owners and chef are very kind to me,” he says. “It is a second home.”

This is not where we meet, however. Perhaps emphasising the allure of Edinburgh, there’s another top Japanese restaurant down the road. He causes an immediate buzz among staff: “A Manchester City player, really?” It later emerges that David Beckham is dining at the same time on the other side of town, at Leith’s The Kitchin.

Meshino is giving the superstar a run for his money when it comes to selfies with waitresses. Of course, he’s only just making his way in the game. What’s extraordinary if you’ve seen his level of performance on the pitch – and, if not, catch him while you can, non-Hearts supporters included – is his relative inexperience. He only started playing regularly for the Gamba first team in March, he explains (the Japanese league season runs between spring and December).

By August he had signed for arguably one of the top clubs in the world, and certainly the No 1 manager – Pep Guardiola. How did this come about? Manchester City’s scouting network is obviously extensive, but this seems particularly brisk work.

The club’s interest in Japanese talent has increased under Guardiola since the environment produces technically competent, hard-working players. In answer to those who wonder if Meshino, at 21, has not already missed the boat if he wants to make it at City, Japanese players tend to break through slightly later since they are obligated to continue at school until 17. Harry Cochrane, for example, has been full-time at Hearts since he was 15. Meshino turned professional just over three years ago, on leaving school.

“People in Japan say I am a lucky boy. But I say, ‘no, no, that’s not true’,” he protests. He has earned his break. City told him he had more in common physically with a South American. They actually mentioned Aguero to him. His robustness was underlined in the recent Edinburgh derby. Osaka has two teams – Gamba and Cerezo. But the Hibs match, where he caught the eye in a 2-1 win, was, he reports, “much crazier”.

KNOWN AS 'LITTLE MESHI' AT THE ETIHAD

Meshino caught their eye with an exceptional last-minute winning goal against Shonan Bellmare in June. Two months later he was in Manchester. It was all rather fraught. At times it’s hard to believe he’s here at all such has been the complicated and eleventh-hour nature of successive moves to Manchester City and then, with his feet having barely touched down in England, to Hearts on loan.

“On the last day of the Premier League window, they flew me to Manchester,” he recalls. “I signed six minutes before the deadline. I came out of my medical and I ran to the office where I signed.” He met Guardiola the following day. “I wanted to take a photo with him, but then I thought: no, I am his player. I want to play for him.”

He might have been a slow starter compared to others, but he’s picking up pace now. It’s fair to say he is the most technical player at Tynecastle. Manchester City have described him as “a 9-and-a-half” – half way between a striker and attacking midfielder. Hearts have only used him in the latter role – so far.

The Tynecastle club are benefiting from an already established link with City. Key to the process has been Austin MacPhee, inset, who is acting as interpreter having spent years playing football in Japan. The Hearts assistant manager helped persuade City that Tynecastle would be a supportive home for “Little Meshi”, as he is already known at the Etihad campus.

Meshino stresses MacPhee was a significant reason why he agreed to come to Hearts, as was manager Craig Levein, who he describes as “my second father”. MacPhee, meanwhile, is the big brother who has helped him assimilate to life in Scotland. While Meshino continues to study English, MacPhee has been invaluable and can be heard issuing instructions to the player in Japanese from the dugout.

It’s clear he feels content here. But he very nearly did not arrive at all. The events surrounding his signing reads like an espionage thriller, taking in Manila, various embassies and the British Ambassador to Japan. It also relies on an influential Labour MP who happens to be a Hearts fan.

Hearts’ season might well have hinged on this frantic chain of events. Emails pinged back and forth. Ian Murray, Labour MP for Edinburgh South, became involved, writing to Paul Madden, the British ambassador to Japan, to explain that Meshino had sent his passport to Manila, the Home Office’s UK Visas and Immigrations regional hub, and, with time ticking down to the 2 September transfer deadline, it was still there, despite assurances otherwise.

Hearts had applied for a Tier 5 sporting visa, allowing those with a special talent to work for up to 12 months. It was initially sanctioned by an SFA panel following a hearing attended by owner Ann Budge, along with Levein and MacPhee, on the morning of the Betfred Cup win over Motherwell. Those who have seen Meshino play will vouch for him fulfilling this “special talent” criteria. But Hearts fans were almost robbed of the pleasure.

Shortly before the transfer window shut in Scotland, the player was still in Osaka. His agent was telling Hearts that if the passport problem could not be overcome, he would have no option but to find another club to take him on loan where the transfer window was still open.

Levein, MacPhee and Janine Brown, the club’s HR manager, worked through the night and were in constant dialogue with Murray, who sought to use his influence by contacting Madden, who he urged to expedite the process. Hearts had paid for priority service in a bid to avoid these administration obstacles.

Eventually it was resolved at the highest diplomatic level and Meshino is proving worth all the fuss.

'I CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE HERE'

Hearts’ gain is other clubs’ loss. “I went to visit three teams in Holland as well,” Meshino says.

“Austin and Craig were big factors in coming here. I had a good feeling about the club. Craig and Austin already knew everything about me – and Austin knew about Japanese life.

“When I came here when they presented a video, they talked about how I could improve my game,” he adds. “That is very important for me. Everyone else just concentrated on what I am good at. But I want to get better. Their enthusiasm meant everything to me.”

After each game MacPhee sits down with Meshino and reviews his performance, where he did well, and where, crucially, he might do better. “I felt I could make a difference here and succeed, if the team can find a way of getting me the ball,” he says.

So far, so good. He has played five times since coming on against Hamilton Accies, scored once and previously struggling Hearts have tasted defeat only once. Midfielder Glenn Whelan has proved a perfect foil in his role as the conduit between defence and attack. “Glenn is always looking for me,” he says.

Few players are responsible for changing an entire team’s outlook but that seems to be the case with Meshino, whose arrival has led to Hearts becoming a lot easier on the eye. Take last week’s clash with St Mirren for example, when the team seemed designed to play to his strengths. They are now aiming to play more through midfield.

But while Hearts are happy to adapt to him, Scottish football won’t. “The Scottish game is very quick,” says Meshino. “I need to get used to it. It is physical and possession of the ball goes back and forward between the teams. The J League is more like Spain or Holland.”

It has already been demonstrated that it is possible for players from his homeland to flourish here. “[Shunsuke] Nakamura was a fantastic player,” he says, referencing the former Celtic midfielder. It is sobering to calculate Meshino was only 11 when Nakamura left Celtic Park and so cannot remember him playing in Scotland.

With so much going on, the Rugby World Cup currently taking place in his homeland is passing him by. “All I know is we beat Ireland,” he says. When Scotland play Japan in next Sunday’s crucial, potentially winner-takes-all encounter, he will be in Brazil preparing for the following day’s Under-22 international.

“Everything is happening so quickly,” he says.

It’s as if someone has pushed the fast forward button for his life. Moments later, he’s pressing the accelerator of his Mercedes as he speeds off to collect those precious boots.