The Hearts players will only get four weeks off this summer but Alim Ozturk doesn’t mind.
Two years ago he arrived at Tynecastle, aware that he had joined a club looking to rebuild and reinvent itself. Back then he was unsure if the side would even manage to map a route out of the Championship. Having achieved that and more in the time since, he will report back to the Riccarton training ground next month, preparing to lead the Gorgie side out for a Europa League qualifier and looking forward to exciting times.
“In my first year, we won the Championship and I don’t think anyone expected that with Rangers and Hibs in the league as well,” he said. “Everybody was talking about Rangers winning it and when I came here my agent told me as well that it would be a tough one and Rangers were the big favourites, but that we could get the play-offs. So, to win the league was a big one. Then in my second year to finish third and go into Europe, that is incredible and I believe we can build up from here.”
The Hearts captain only has one year left on his contract but given the club’s upward trajectory, he says there is no need to plot a quick exit.
“I am still 23 years and I am not finished here. I want to build something with the club and I think we are going the right way.”
After the team wraps up their Premiership campaign with a final soiree at home to St Johnstone today, he will make the most of a week in Turkey but cannot wait to embark on further European travels at the end of June, when he and his team-mates attempt to make it through the Europa League qualifiers and into the group stages. The draw will be made on 20 June, with the first match on 30 June.
“This will be the first time [I have been involved in European competition]. It will be different and I hope we will get a nice draw, not too far away. We will see.”
While Ozturk has never been involved in one of the primary UEFA cup competitions, others at the club have regaled him with tales of Hearts’ past Euro excursions and the atmosphere generated by such fixtures in Gorgie. “I have heard about it because the boys have been talking about that. I heard about playing Liverpool and for them it was the most beautiful experience.”
But while the 2012 fixtures are fresh in the memory, for fans, the backroom staff and other employees, there have been countless nights to remember on the road and under the Tynecastle lights, in front of sell-out crowds. “Most weeks we play in front of a sell-out crowd,” says the centre-back, “but European games are always different and you could see that against Liverpool.”
While the memories endure, the capital club did not make it to the group stages that year, the 1-1 draw at Anfield laudable but not enough to overhaul the 1-0 defeat in Gorgie. But, having excelled in exceeding expectations in his first two seasons at the club, Ozturk, who says he is growing into his role as captain and learning every day, would love to do the same in his first foray into Europe and he says the fact that other nations often underestimate our game could help.
He confesses that he too had assumed it would be easier than it was and had failed to appreciate the size of the club or the passion for the game in Scotland prior to his introduction.
“I think people talk about the Scottish league like it’s not that good. But it’s hard, believe me. It looks easy, but it is not. In Holland you get enough time to play from the back, but that’s not possible here. They press you for 90 minutes. I always give the example of last year when Aberdeen beat Groningen in the Europa League. That says enough to me.”
And, he says Tynecastle affords them an added advantage, with the venue an intimidating one for visiting teams. “I had heard a lot about it and I have said before that I spoke with Mark De Vries and that I came over for a weekend. But if you see how everything is going and everything around the club, you can see other teams are scared when they come to Tynecastle. It’s a hard place to win against us. That says enough, I think.”
Which could serve them well in Europe but also on domestic business as they look to improve on this term’s third-place finish and extend their interest in the cup competitions next season.
“But you have to see which players come in and which players go. We have a strong team with good young players and a big number of them still have contracts so that’s good because we can build it up from there. If you have to change your team every year it’s much harder.
“I still have one year and if the club want me to sign for another year or something I will be happy, no problem. I am happy with how everything is going, so why not?”