London Hearts Supporters Club

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De Vries wants to be a rotter

Moira Gordon

THE De Kuip Stadium has a reputation for intimidating. The Feyenoord fans are fearsome, while the club’s pedigree is spelt out in places other than the history books. Standing in the tunnel, players are visually assaulted by the scrawled names of the cup winners and internationals who have played for the Rotterdam club, as well as details of the big games hosted.

But while it is often enough to prompt feelings of inferiority in the home personnel, let alone those visiting, for Mark de Vries, the stadium has been nothing but inspirational.

Hearts’ Dutch frontman grew up about an hour and a half away and while he supported Ajax as a boy, wooed by the scoring exploits of Marco Van Basten and the skills of other national heroes such as the current Feyenoord coach Ruud Gullit, as he forged a playing career it was the Rotterdam arena which became the bricks and mortar representation of his ambitions.

"That’s why I was hoping for Feyenoord. I used to support Ajax when I was a young boy and it would have been nice to play them because that’s only half an hour from my home town but we couldn’t so I wanted Feyenoord," says De Vries, delighted with the draw but under no illusions about the enormity of the UEFA Cup task facing the Edinburgh team in their first Group A match on Thursday. "It’s exciting for me because two and a half years ago I played for Dordrecht and that is about 20 minutes on the other side of Rotterdam and every time I drove home, I crossed a bridge and from there I could see the Feyenoord stadium. I used to think what it would be like to play there.

"This is what you play football for, the big games. This is what you want. This is what little boys dream of. When I was younger, of course I thought what it would be like to be a footballer but I didn’t always believe it was meant for me. I only started to realise that I could be a professional when I was 15 or 16 and these are the things I will think about when I walk into the stadium, all those dreams coming true.

"The stadium I used to drive past is now the stadium I will be playing in with my team from Scotland and that’s quite funny. It’s great but if you had asked me three years ago if that would happen I would have said: ‘Yeah, you’re joking!’"

But things have changed in the intervening years. A player who was never allowed to scale the heights in his homeland, he is now returning as a crucial component of a team hell-bent on constant improvement. Quality performances and the group format of the UEFA Cup has guaranteed this European run will be Hearts’ most enduring since the late 1980s and the presence of the 6’4" forward in their ranks is one of the reasons the club have been able to make their mark on the bigger stage.

Their top goalscorer for the past two seasons, De Vries is also the man who waded in with the away goal in Bordeaux last season, for a win hailed as one of the club’s most notable of all time. This year, despite again struggling with a slew of injuries, he has, arguably, already surpassed that contribution. On crutches just days before the last-round trip to Braga, he still recovered sufficiently to start the game and score both of the away goals which secured their place in the group draw.

The look on his face and weary shake of the head when the matter is raised suggests that while delighted with the goals, he is disgusted by the constant interruptions to his quest for a lengthy and unhindered run in the team.

"It is a nightmare because I find myself playing a game and then having to rest for a couple of days because, in a game, there’s nowhere you can hide. In training, after a couple of runs, you can say, ‘Okay, I will sit out the next one’ but in a game you have to give 100% all the time and you usually manage to do more than you should because of the adrenaline but when that comes out of your system the next day, you feel worse.

"Just now because of the injuries and because I am not fit, after games for maybe two or three days I am really, really tired and then I have to get myself back up for the next game. It’s only really the past two and a half years that I’ve been getting injury after injury after injury and it’s really, really, really frustrating. But I try to think positive and if I can play with an injection, I will do it and if I can play through the pain, I will do it. I always want to play."

The even temperament which has soothed the pain of intermittent spells on the sidelines is evident as he sits analysing his footballing fortunes. His trouser leg is still rolled up from the treatment he has been receiving on his ankle but, with several of his team-mates still away on international duty, he is determined to make the most of his few days off.

Having failed to make it home for almost three months he is desperate to escape for the airport and a whistle-stop trip to see his four-year-old daughter, Zoe. "She called me on Tuesday [this was last Friday] crying on the phone telling me she missed me and she wanted to know when I was coming so I’m going there this afternoon."

A shy but seemingly warm man it is only as matters are close to being wrapped up and model poses are being struck that the tightness of his schedule is divulged. It’s going to be a close-run thing but never has this charming club ambassador treated the interview as an inconvenient intrusion or displayed any signs of agitation. His gentle ire is reserved only for his injuries or the fact that dense forestry around his new home makes it impossible to pick up a signal for satellite television and Dutch football.

"I’m loving life now and it’s a great time to be a Hearts player. Things are being decided off the pitch, there’s the new academy, the UEFA Cup and just look at these games, what a great week. There’s Celtic, Feyenoord, then Hibs. That’s a great run."

But the good times are no more than the likeable 29-year-old deserves - professionally and personally. "Everything is really good for me. I have my new house and things couldn’t be better for me ... apart from the fact I can’t get Sky TV!"

Polite and soft-spoken, the only time there is recognisable steel in his voice is when he is asked about his future. He says he loves Edinburgh and Hearts but resolutely refuses to make long-term promises. "I told myself not to speak about this so all I can say is that I am waiting for the plans for future. I want to know what’s going to happen to the club. That’s all I’m going to say."

But he does emphasise that while off-field decisions may colour decisions at a later date, the recent fan protests during games have not tainted his view of the capital club.

"Players don’t speak about that and actually, when we are playing, I’m not really aware of what’s going on. Sometimes when the game stops, yeah, but when we’re actually playing I don’t think the players are affected a lot by it."

But the ugly side of football passion has reared its head in more than one guise since De Vries’ arrival in Scotland. A raft of derby goals made him a target for one half of Edinburgh and after six months of hassle earlier this year, he was forced to move home.

"People started coming to my door at four o’clock in the morning and singing songs and damaging my car. Okay, it’s just a car but every time something happened I had to go to get it fixed and I got fed up with it and decided to move but I said to myself, ‘Okay, if this is the price you’ve got to pay for playing for Hearts, I’ll accept it’ but I shouldn’t have to."

Refusing to let the small-minded element scare him off has reaped dividends as he prepares for a European adventure he could only have dreamt of a few years ago. "I don’t think we will go there and be scared. No way. We know a good performance is vital. Feyenoord are a very good team and we don’t want to go over there and get beaten silly, we want to prove that we are good at playing football. But we won’t feel intimidated. We know we deserve to be there. I’m not trying to say that we are all of a sudden a brilliant team, I’m not saying that, but we have worked hard this year and we have got what we deserve."

The names scrawled on the De Kuip may prompt feelings of inferiority in some but De Vries and his team-mates should instead focus on the big games played there. There have been plenty but, for Hearts, none will have been bigger than this Thursday’s.

Taken from the Scotsman

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