Arnaud Djoum pinpoints physical and mental fatigue as the reason for his indifferent form with Hearts during 2017. International commitments with Cameroon on top of a transition period at club level combined to leave the midfielder exhausted and struggling to perform at his best.
After a two-month absence with knee ligament damage, he is now fit once again. He donned a maroon shirt last Sunday against Partick Thistle to make his first appearance since September 16 at Hamilton, where he suffered the aforementioned injury. Recapturing top form is now the the player’s absolute priority.
Public criticism has never been far away in recent months as Djoum’s influence on the Hearts team dipped. He toiled to maintain the domineering form which first earned him international recognition from Cameroon in 2016. After helping his country to a historic African Cup of Nations win in February this year, he has been a shadow of himself.
Djoum explained the reasons to the Evening News. Dealing with relentless football and punishing inter-continental flights several times a year has taken its toll on his body. He now feels he has worked out a coping mechanism for when international games resume next spring.
Between now and then, Djoum knows he has a duty to help Hearts climb the Ladbrokes Premiership. He expects to be back to a physical peak by next month with the Edinburgh club in the midst of a run of home matches at the redeveloped Tynecastle Park.
“With some games in my legs, I will be better and better. I feel stronger now,” said the 28-year-old ahead of tomorrow’s match with Ross County. “For the last two months, I have tried to rest firstly and then work really hard on other areas of my body. I wanted to be really, really, fit so I used these two months to recover from the last year. It was a tough year for me. I need to play games now and I think in December I will be close to my best.
“It was difficult for me over the last 12 months because, when I came to Hearts, I didn’t play international football. I was not used to travelling during every international break. I was used to getting three or four days off so I can rest and recover.
“Now I need to travel ten hours from here to Africa, play in hot weather, get back to Edinburgh on a Thursday, train Friday and be ready to play for Hearts on the Saturday. Physically, it has been hard and that was my problem. Now I have learned how I need to deal with it. The international matches start again in March and I will be better prepared. I know what I need to do and not do.”
Damaged medial knee ligaments left Djoum sitting in the stand for seven games, of which Hearts won only two. His return against Partick imbued the midfield with more balance, nous and craft.
“It was hard being out when you see the team struggling with a lot of defeats. It’s hard to be in the stand watching this,” he admitted. “I came to all the games because it’s important for me to be close to the team. I wanted to be there, support everyone and see them after the game to support them with some words of encouragement.
“There are a lot of young players in the squad. I have experience and I have to be there for my team-mates. It was frustrating to see what was happening but that’s part of football. I can’t do anything about the injuries, I’m just happy to be back fit myself.”
As manager Craig Levein has said across a number of media outlets including this one, Djoum’s influence was badly missed.
“For the last month, I didn’t read anything in the newspapers. When I saw the team playing, I could see they needed me a little bit,” said the player.
“There was not a lot of pressure on me, I’m just excited to be back. When you are out for almost two months, you miss the pitch, the atmosphere before and after the game, everything. I just wanted to be back playing as soon as possible. I know I have a responsibility in the team and I will do my best to help. I always try to take responsibility. Hopefully, we can get better results.”
A run of home games should certainly help. After drawing with Partick, Hearts host Ross County tomorrow and then Hamilton, Motherwell, Dundee and Celtic in succession. It is a welcome sequence back at Tynecastle and may, to some extent, underpin their season if they can properly harness the home advantage.
“I think it’s a key period,” said Djoum. “We are back playing at Tynecastle and we know we have massive support there. We deserved to win last Sunday, we just conceded a late goal. We need to win the game this weekend and keep winning to get ourselves higher in the table. Everybody in the team knows this is a very important time so I think we are ready to go against Ross County.
“These are all home games and I prefer to play at home than away.
“I will use everything to try to do my best and I know the fans at Tynecastle will help me during these home games. I will try to do my best. I’m excited to play these matches.”