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Exclusive | Hearts defender Clevid Dikamona: “I feel responsible for where we are.”

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Get French Football News, Scottish 1st division side Hearts’ central defender Clevid Dikamona discussed what has been an incredibly challenging campaign so far.

You’ve been playing in Scotland for a year and a half now, do you feel you’ve adapted now? 

I think I’ve adapted well. It’s true that Scottish football is unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, be that in France or in Greece, where I was before coming to play here. But now I’ve adapted to the specific demands of the Scottish game.

As a league it’s quite rough and you have to be ready physically. There’s a lot of intensity and the referee rarely stops the game. If you’re not used to having these sorts of breaks in the middle of games, it can be tough at the start. But now, it’s fine. 

And how are you finding life in Scotland in general? 

Honestly, really good because I have the chance to live in Edinburgh, which is a beautiful city. On the other hand, the weather is not so great, it’s so cold and there’s so much wind! But you can’t have everything. Night falls very early too, but apart from all that Edinburgh is a great town where you live well, it’s easy to feel settled here. 

When I first arrived, we were challenging at the top in the Scottish league. Despite where we are now, Hearts remains a massive club in Scotland, and I was lucky to be given the opportunity to play in such a team when before I was playing in clubs that would be battling relegation or in minor top-flight clubs. Now, I’m at a top club in a top-flight. I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too, as they say. It wouldn’t have been possible to be in a top club and on top of that have the perfect weather. 

When you look at the internationals who are in the squad, I’m lucky to be able to play alongside them. Whether it’s during games or in training, you learn a lot from them and you grow as a player. 

The club is going through a difficult spell at the moment, how is the squad handling it? 

It’s difficult for us, because we know that the club is not where it should be, especially when you consider its history and what it means to Scottish football. We also know each other’s quality in this squad, and in that sense we’re not in the place we should be either. We should be a lot higher, but as I say, football is not an exact science. So now we’re in a difficult period but I think we have quality to raise the bar. There’s six months left of competition, and it’s up to us to change that and get back to the sort of result that the club is used to and should be getting. 

Is there anything Daniel Stendel has been doing in particular to bring that about? 

The first thing a new coach tries to do is to breathe new life into the team, a new perspective into the situation and some freshness, which is what he’s brought us. I think we needed some positivity at this stage of the campaign; there was negativity all around us before that, be it in the results or in the mood of the squad. What his arrival has done is allow us to see things from another point of view. He’s been asking us on a daily basis to communicate a lot between ourselves, to create a solid group because in the face of adversity nothing is better than unity. His vision of football is different to what we had with Craig [Levein].  

He’s asking us to play more offensively, to be further up the pitch and to press at any time during games. He sees things in a positive rather than negative way. Attack is the best form of defence, that’s why he asks us to press opponents as much as possible. 

Is this a style of play which suits you more? 

Having developed as a player in France, I would say so. We try to play as much as possible – as a central defender in France you learn to clear the ball in a cleaner way, and in athletic terms to be able to sprint often. 

Before, we had a style of play where there was no risk taking, and the objective was just to get one goal more than the opposition. While nowadays the message we have is to take more risks in order to score goals. Even if this might give the opposition more chances to score, generally by taking risks we are the ones who create more chances. It’s our responsibility if we have three chances on goal to score all three, even if it means conceding two as well. 

Not many defenders out there would be so in favour of attacking play at the cost of a clean sheet.

At heart I’m still a defender, so obviously I don’t want to be conceding any goals – this is more to do with the coach’s mentality. My priority is to defend, but I appreciate that I’m being asked to take on responsibilities and take risks to help the team carve out chances. My main ‘motivation’ on the pitch is to not concede any goals, but I like that this coach encourages us to take risks on the ball. 

Do you think that the role of the modern defender is precisely to take on a more important role in building attacks? 

I would say so, football is evolving. Before, a central defender wasn’t really expected to be good with his feet, it was more of an extra attribute that allowed you to play at the very highest level. Nowadays, whatever the level you’re at, coaches will appreciate it if you can not only defend but also control the ball and calm the game down when it’s needed so that you can bring the ball out properly. 

What have you made of Christophe Berra’s exclusion from the lineups? 

What I’ll say is this is the sort of decision a manager makes. Because he has a different approach to the game, he builds his squad according to what he needs. Maybe for him, Christophe didn’t fit that criteria. As a team-mate, it always hurts to see someone you play with being cast aside like that, because I tell myself that it could just as well have been me in his place. But this is a business where there are choices to be made, and it’s the manager who makes them so they have to be respected. 

I imagine he still keeps a presence at the club, despite all of this? 

Of course, he’s still an important part of the club. He was formed here, he went off and had a great career and then came back home. For me, he remains the club’s iconic captain. Even if he’s not on the pitch on matchday, he makes his presence felt. 

You’ve had quite an atypical career path, having played in many countries. Do you prefer travelling a lot in your career or having a sense of stability? 

To each his own – a career is not linear, we all have our own journey to reach our objectives. There are moments where I might have wanted a more stable career, but it’s all these experiences which have helped me reach the level I am at today. I’ve gone through every tier, from the lowest divisions to the top flights, and the only reason for that is that at certain points, I’ve agreed to go out and travel for example to play in the Greek 1st division, and now in the Scottish one. There’s no guarantee that if I had tried to go for more stability, I would have been playing in Ligue 1 by now. I have no regrets and I’m happy that I’ve travelled in order to reach my goals. 

It’s also a show of determination, then.

For sure! From the moment I had the dream of becoming a professional footballer, I wasn’t doing it to settle after my first professional contract. I wanted to reach the highest possible level. If travelling around is what it took for me to reach the highest level, then I was determined to do it. I’m lucky that I have my family there to follow me on my travels, in this dream of mine, and it’s definitely proof of my determination to succeed. 

And on top of that, you were able to broaden your horizons and discover new cultures along the way too.

Each experience has allowed me to grow. But not just me, my family as well. I’m lucky to have children who have grown up in different countries, know about different cultures, and speak different languages – that’s not something everyone can have, so they’ve had that opportunity from our travels. They can speak different languages, and it’s something that will be important for them later in life. On top of the fact that I’m able to play football and live from my passion, my family is able to make the most of this time away from home to grow themselves. 

Do you see yourself staying at Edinburgh in the long term, then? 

We’re feeling good here, but then again right now the priority is to work as hard as possible get the club out of the situation I’ve had a part in putting it in. I feel responsible for it, just as the other players in the team. So right now I’m not thinking about the future but what needs to be done in the present, which is to get our heads up and start a positive run. 

Personally, I’m reaching the end of my contract in June so that’s in the back of my mind, but that’s really not my priority.  

Psychologically, how does a defender deal with a bad run of games, is there more pressure than for other positions? 

Of course, although I’d say that the first defender on the pitch is the forward, and we’re always defending. As a defender, when we’re bottom we know that we’re among the worst defences, and that sort of thing has an impact on you as a person and as a player. But this galvanises me because it makes me want to give more each day, and, put simply, to better myself. 

R.J.

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