The Scottish League’s on/off association with Portuguese footballers (and management – more of this soon) is back ‘on’ again since Portuguese striker Esmaël Gonçalves (or ‘Isma’ for short) joined Heart of Midlothian (Hearts) in the Scottish top tier in January.
Speaking exclusively to PortuGOAL’s Scottish football correspondent John Hunt, the former Rio Ave striker said he was happy to be in Edinburgh and is convinced fortunes will turn around for Hearts sooner rather than later.
Hearts, of course, were previously under the tutelage of Portuguese manager Paulo Sérgio during season 2011/2012. It was an eventful year, ending with Hearts winning the Scottish Cup and Sérgio rapidly exiting Tynecastle after being offered a new deal at approximately half of the salary he was already on...
The side Hearts beat that day, city rivals Hibernian, are currently in the 2nd tier, though they look odds-on to return to the top-flight this season, sitting top of their league by seven points as the season enters its final quarter.
Hearts have not met Hibs on league business for two seasons now, but they have met in the Scottish Cup in both of the last two terms – with Hibs the victors on both occasions after replays. Indeed, last year, Hibs went on to lift the trophy for the first time since 1902, much to the chagrin of the Gorgie faithful!
In January, Hearts brought in nine new players to revitalise a season that was flagging, despite sitting comfortably in the top half of the table. Isma was one of them, and PortuGOAL spoke to him last week about his time with the Edinburgh side thus far.
Isma has tipped city rivals Hibs to win the Championship this season and told us that he wants to see the Easter Road outfit back in the top tier.
The striker seeks revenge “as soon as possible” for the 3-1 mauling he and his team-mates suffered at the hands of Hibs in their Scottish Cup fifth-round replay in Leith last month. While the scoreline reflects a comfortable enough win, I was at the game and the result flattered Hearts, who could have left Easter Road on the end of a real hammering.
Said Isma: “It would be good to have Hibs back in Premiership and I can’t wait to play against them again. I have a feeling we could quickly gain revenge to get the cup loss out our system. I scored, but it didn’t matter because the team was really disappointed with the cup result and what happened that night.”
Isma, 25, was a £170,000 purchase from Cypriot side Famagusta and he’s one of under-fire Hearts boss Ian Cathro’s few successes so far from the new faces that arrived at Tynecastle in January, with a respectable four goals from eight games in the maroon shirt.
Gonçalves previously brought his shooting boots to Paisley for a loan spell with St Mirren in 2013, where he scored one and laid on another goal in the Buddies’ 3-2 victory over Hearts in the Scottish League Cup Final.
His parent club in Portugal, Rio Ave, then slapped a hefty £400,000 price tag on his head making a permanent move to St Mirren impossible, so Gonçalves next went on loan moves to APOEL (Cyprus), Veria (Greece) and then Famagusta before arriving at Tynecastle on a contract that takes him through to 2020.
Happy in Scotland
“It’s a good move for me to come back to Scotland,” said Isma. “I wasn’t sad to leave Cyprus because it’s not a league that many people see. I saw the chance to come back to Scotland and show that I had more to offer, more to show. St Mirren is a great club but Hearts are bigger. But the weather? I’m never going to get used to that!”
Hearts fans seem to have taken to Isma in a season of few highs so far and he says: “I think that there is a long way to go to win the confidence of the fans. I think you must maintain a level of good work so at least even if you don’t score, you keep working hard, things will be OK and the goals will come along.”
Hearts have had a torrid run of form of late, including last weekend’s dismal 2-0 loss to Aberdeen but Isma sees only positives: “We want to take Hearts into Europe. It’s what the players want and what the club needs. This is a team that must be playing in Europe. We have the players, the talent and the capacity to do that and also have the fans with us.
“I think we can be a Europe team and see that at the end of the season if it’s possible.
Gunning to catch Rangers
“Winning the league is not really possible with Celtic’s position, their finance and everything about the way the club is arranged. But it IS possible to catch Rangers. Our last few results haven’t gone so well but there are still nine games to go. That’s 27 points. A LOT can happen.
“I’m going to be here for a while I think. After 2020 I will see how it goes, if everything is good for me and the club and everyone is happy then I’ll stay. If something happens then we’ll speak and see what happens. That’s football.”
Hearts are currently fifth in the Premiership, nine points behind Rangers so, for this writer at least, overtaking the Ibrox club (even though they are in something of a state of disarray, to put it mildly) this term is a big ask.
Next season though, who knows? If Isma can keep up his record of scoring every other game, then that will certainly help.
by John Hunt