WHEN Juwon Oshaniwa, Hearts’ endlessly charming and gracious left-back, entertained a gathering of reporters several weeks ago by stressing, with all the force of someone delivering a sermon, that the Tynecastle club were credible title contenders, it was easy to scoff.
Hearts’ subsequent troubles, when they lost consecutively against Hamilton, Inverness and Aberdeen, was all the excuse some needed to recollect this elated rattle from Oshaniwa, which came after a 3-0 win over Partick Thistle in August had given the Tynecastle side a fifth league success in a row.
On that same afternoon, Oshaniwa also added that he didn’t see any reason why Hearts should fear Celtic. Why couldn’t they, on any given day, have ambitions to be a match for the champions, he wondered?
Again, it felt necessary to recall the amiable Nigerian’s words as Hearts manfully kept Celtic out on Saturday, in Oshaniwa’s first taste of life against the champions.
While it would be stretching things to say they matched the hosts, few Celtic fans could complain about Hearts leaving with a point, particularly in view of what occurred in the dying seconds of the game. Describing the late – in every sense – Efe Ambrose challenge that very intentionally stopped Sam Nicholson in his tracks as a “smart decision”, Oshaniwa said his friend and compatriot had prevented it turning into an even more “disastrous” day for Celtic.
Like Hearts manager Robbie Neilson, Oshaniwa nodded with the appreciation of a fellow professional when asked about the incident. Football romantics might have died a little inside when Ambrose almost rugby tackled Nicholson in a cynical attempt to stop him scoring.
However, Oshaniwa, like Neilson, felt the defender had no choice but to put himself in danger for the benefit of the team. Referee Kevin Clancy certainly had little option but to show Ambrose the red card. “He left himself as a sacrifice for the goal,” said Oshaniwa, in typically dramatic style. “In the world of football, for me, he has done a good thing, because I too am a defender. If he had said: ‘I’ll let him go’ it would be disastrous. For me, it was the right decision.”
It says something for Oshaniwa and his team-mates that they refused to let a run of three consecutive league defeats shake their confidence. Neilson felt the need to make some alterations to the team, even after the midweek League Cup win over Kilmarnock that arrested their recent slide.
Skipper Alim Ozturk surprisingly dropped to the substitutes’ bench and Igor Rossi and Blazej Augustyn combined in the middle of defence, with Oshaniwa and Callum Paterson retained in their full-back berths as normal.
Although Hearts survived by the skin of their teeth – and the width of the bar – in the first half, the system seemed to work in the second, once this re-jigged defence settled in. Celtic kept on crossing the ball and Hearts kept on clearing the danger. The visitors rode their luck most obviously in the opening 45 minutes when only poor finishing by Celtic kept Hearts in the game. One James Forrest effort also bashed against the bar to keep the score level.
Rather than continuing to live dangerously, Hearts coped more comfortably in the second half, repelling what Celtic had to offer and so very nearly sneaking in to steal a win at the end, with the home team committed to attack. But Hearts’ main aim of the day was to keep Celtic out. It is the first time since March that Celtic have failed to score at home.
“We tried to keep a clean sheet, keep our heads straight in defence, and even before kick-off, we were determined not to concede a goal,” said Oshaniwa. “You can see how we kept in narrow, and that is what we came out to do.
“It is all about communication – it is difficult when it is people from different countries, and different philosophies,” he added. “When you come together, football is one language you have to understand. It is about being able to think in a second: ‘your man is switching over and he is now my man’.”
Had Oshaniwa been aware that the odds had been so heavily stacked against Hearts, given their record of ten successive defeats by Celtic before Saturday? “I was not cognisant of that – but I know they are the champions of Scotland, and that is undisputed,” he said. “I am aware of some of their players – Izaguirre and also Ambrose – we used to play in the international team together – and also Scott Brown.
“Picking up a point in the land of the best team in the country is a good result for me and my colleagues,” he added.
Oshaniwa remains admirably sanguine about Hearts’ hopes of challenging at the top. “I have never been disappointed in the team,” he said. “I told you when I arrived, and when I looked around, I saw boys that really wanted to work. We lost games that maybe we were not supposed to lose – in football you win, lose or draw. But in every game we have a desire to win.
“If you don’t, you need to see it as a challenge. The league is still young. I don’t feel disappointed in those games [which we lost]. You have seen us coming out in the last two games a lot stronger, fighting for each other.
“We had it in our head that we were not coming here to lose and that is exactly what happened.”
Referee: K Clancy