BY ALAN TEMPLE – Capital City Press
Alim Ozturk admits he is humbled to be among the players under consideration to replace Danny Wilson as Hearts captain, confessing he never imagined he would develop such a strong bond with the club so quickly.
The popular Turk, who is still only 22, was handed the armband for Saturday’s 4-2 win over Shelbourne and, although his afternoon was curtailed by injury after 26 minutes, he was “honoured” by the gesture.
Morgaro Gomis and Ozturk skippered the Jambos against Bohemians and Shels respectively last week – they are yet to play in the same team – suggesting that it is a two-horse race for the armband.
Being selected to succeed Wilson as club captain would complete a whirlwind 12 months for the young centre-half, who joined Hearts from Trabzonspor and emerged as a key figure in their march to the Championship title, making 36 appearances and cutting a composed figure in the back-line.
His 40-yard wonder-goal against Hibernian at Easter Road in January has already cemented him place in derby day folklore but, more than just that, he has emerged as a leader in Robbie Neilson’s dressing room.
“It was a big honour for me when I heard I would be captain for the game,” explained Ozturk. “I will just have to wait to see what will happen now because there are a lot of players with the qualities to captain this team.
“It means a lot to be in the running for the role, because there are more experienced guys than me and some great players. I have been captain in friendlies before in my career, but it’s up to the gaffer whether I keep it permanently.
“I didn’t think I would develop such a bond with the club so quickly, it has been very fast. But last season was really good for me and I played a lot of games so that is probably the main reason.
“Although, if you score a goal like that against Hibs you will always be popular with the supporters.”
Ozturk moved to allay any fears regarding his fitness as Hearts step up preparations for the new campaign.
The former Turkey under-21 internationalist underwent a minor hernia operation in the close season, meaning the sight of him limping from the Tolka Park turf to be replaced by Jahmal Howlett-Mundle was a worrying sight.
Ozturk revealed that he played through the pain barrier for much of the second half of last season, but insists his breakdown on Saturday should be considered “frustrating”, rather than concerning.
“We didn’t want to take any risks at this stage in pre-season,” he continued. “There’s a small pain here and there which is a little bit frustrating.
“I had my surgery in the first week of May and the plan was that I would just miss a little bit of pre-season. It was a muscle around the hernia.
“It was not a big problem but it was bothering me the last few months of last season. I wanted to play with the pain to help us win the league and the plan was always to do the surgery in the summer.”
Indeed, the rigours of observing Ramadan are proving more testing than any complaints about hernias and thigh strains.
As practicing Muslims, Ozturk and his teammate Soufian El Hassnaoui – the pair also share a house – fast during daylight hours, meaning the already-gruelling pre-season schedule becomes all the more challenging.
“I find it really hard,” conceded Ozturk. “The days are really long. But I believe in God and I need to do it. Soufi and myself are in the same situation. We were staying in the same room [in Dublin] and we live together so we help each other out.
“We also shaved each other’s heads, although I don’t think I’ll be doing that again!”
Following Hearts’ worthwhile training camp in Ireland, which saw them claim wins over Bohemians and Shelbourne, they are back in action tomorrow evening as they travel to Kirkcaldy to face Raith Rovers.