Athens ‘war’ has prepared Hearts’ Greek defender for cup derby

Hearts' Greek defender Tasos Avlonitis is relishing the prospect of his first Edinburgh derby. Picture: SNS
Hearts' Greek defender Tasos Avlonitis is relishing the prospect of his first Edinburgh derby. Picture: SNS
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While some observers feel that the number of newcomers in Hearts’ ranks could be their undoing on derby day, Tasos Avlonitis has laughed off the idea that the occasion could overwhelm him.

One of the January acquisitions, the Greek defender has sampled the Olympiacos and Panathinaikos blockbuster and while he knows that fans here are just as demanding, he also knows that they are slightly more sane in the way they express that.

“It’s a war there,” he said. “They have gates in every area to keep them away from each other. They fight in the streets. They hate each other,
believe me.” The Greek international was among the Olympiacos players bombarded with flares as they headed out to the pitch ahead of the November 2015 clash. They fled to the safety of the dressing room as police and fans faced up outside and the match was abandoned.

“The game didn’t start,” recalled Avlonitis. “When we went outside, immediately there was fire and one of the players, a striker who now plays for Augsburg [Alfred Finnbogason], went down and it burned his uniform. This was before the game when we walked out from the tunnel to see how the pitch was! Believe me, it’s war.

“The police and the referee told us to go inside. We stayed there for two or three hours. Believe me, it’s like this. It is terrifying. When you play, you feel pressure before the match starts because you know the fans are like this. The atmosphere after [while the game is on] is perfect but sometimes you are scared something will hit your head.

“Here, or in England, it’s nice for players to play in a good atmosphere but not be afraid of being hurt. It’s not dangerous.”

The latest arrivals have been fully apprised of the need to overcome their neighbours tomorrow. The expectation levels are high and Avlonitis knows these games are where reputations are made or tarnished.

In his introduction to the Athens fixture, he gained cult status, after heading home the only goal as Olympiacos beat Panathinaikos. “If you lose, you don’t go outside, it is no joke,” he added. “If you do maybe the fans will come up to you and touch you or shake you and say: ‘Come on, why did we lose?’ But I have good memories because in 2014 I came on and with my first chance I scored. The fans were singing my name and for me it was a dream. I was a supporter growing up but I did not play in the Olympiacos academy, I started with another team but they bought me. Nobody knew me before that game or expected me to score that goal. After, everyone was speaking about me in the newspapers and it was the best moment of my career. The fans were crazy because we won. So I know about these type of games.

“Everybody still speaks about this moment. Believe me, for the next week, anywhere I went I never paid! They write to me all the time about the goal moment, on my Instagram, my Twitter and also outside in cafeterias. They live this.”

Edinburgh will be divided tomorrow and while that brings pressure to deliver, it is not overwhelming, according to the 27-year-old. He says he would love to write his name into Hearts’ history books by scoring another vital derby goal, but insists the outcome is more important than personal glory.

“I want to [score the winning goal] so much. But, believe me, the most important thing is that the team wins,” he said. “OK, whoever scores is a hero, but I know it is a very important game, it’s a cup game and they are the cup holders. But we are playing them at our home so we have to be prepared and concentrate to put our character on the pitch. We know how important it is for Hearts. And I think if we are 100 per cent focused we can win this game.”