In years to come, when Hearts supporters will hopefully be witnessing the many fruits of Ann Budge’s long-term vision for the club, one player who we will undoubtedly look back on as the poster boy for that vision is Osman Sow.
Plucked out of relative obscurity after being released by English Premier League side Crystal Palace, Sow went on to become the archetypal recruit that Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson were looking for, as the club set about implementing a more prudent transfer policy following years of financial turbulence and a season in administration.
With a recruitment policy based on a concept of “sign-develop-sell”, the club’s aim nowadays is to pick up players with potential for little to no cost and mould them into sellable assets from which the club will profit in the future. For Sow in particular, this approach had mutual benefits: perform well for Hearts and attract the kind of attention from other clubs that could help kick-start his career after a spate of injury problems.
Born in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, Sow spent his youth career at local clubs FOC Farsta and Hammarby IF, before signing professional terms with the former in 2007. In 2010, Sow signed for FC Vasby United (now known as Athletic Football Club United) where he spent a season before his ambition to play abroad took him to Moldova for a stint with FC Dacia Chisinau, an experience that made a significant impact on the then 21-year old striker:
“It’s just a different life over there. It’s a poor country. It put things in perspective. I had never seen anything like that in Sweden. But it was a life experience that I’ve taken with me.”
After a season abroad, Sow returned to his homeland for a short spell with Stockholm County-based Syrianska FC, before interest from Ian Holloway’s Crystal Palace rekindled his desire to play overseas. Unfortunately, a knee injury curtailed the career progress Sow had hoped to make in London and despite making a full recovery, the Swede struggled to work his way into the plans of Tony Pulis, who had since replaced Holloway as Palace manager.
“He [Pulis] hadn’t seen me play — he didn’t even know who I was because I’d been out for six months. When you come back it takes time. But Pulis was doing well, the team were winning so it would have been tough to get in his team anyway. Pulis’s focus wasn’t exactly on my fitness at that time. London was a good place to live. It makes me work hard now so that one day I might get back to that level.”
Sow’s drive and determination for career success made the striker an ideal fit for the new regime at Hearts — where such characteristics are deemed just as important as ability — and convinced Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson to bring him to Edinburgh on trial. However, had circumstances been different at the time, Sow could very well have been plying his trade at the other side of the city, having agreed a deal in principle to join Hibs.
As it was, when our city rivals conspired to join us in the Championship, Terry Butcher’s subsequent dismissal put an end to Sow’s move and the Swede joined Hearts for pre-season training that summer, during which he scored in friendlies against East Fife and Manchester City. Sow’s performances in those games were enough to convince Robbie Neilson to make him the eighth permanent signing of the club’s pre-Championship renovation and it quickly became clear to supporters that the club had pulled off somewhat of a coup.
Despite his six foot three frame, Sow’s aerial ability was surprisingly poor, though what the striker lacked in aerial presence he more than made up for with his sprinter-like build, menacing pace and technical flair. The opening stages of his Hearts career were mixed but eventful, scoring twice in his opening two competitive fixtures — including a dramatic last-minute winner against Rangers in the Championship curtain-raiser at Ibrox — before being sent off for an elbow against Hibs in his third appearance.
After another six goals in his next ten competitive appearances, Sow was showing the kind of proficiency that Hearts supporters had forgotten a striker could be capable of, until his injury record caught up with him in October and it became abundantly clear how the club had managed to acquire a player of his talent on a free.
Although Sow’s lengthy injury-induced absence convinced Robbie Neilson to bring Genero Zeefuik in on loan during the January 2015 transfer window, he eventually made his return to first team action, scoring a further four times to help Hearts on their way to the title and finishing the season with 12 goals in 25 competitive games. An admirable return for a player who missed three months of the season, but having spoken throughout the season of his desire to top the Championship goal-scoring charts, Sow will have been left wondering what could have been had he maintained a clean bill of health. Nevertheless, if he harboured any personal disappointment about his debut season at Tynecastle, he channelled it positively:
“Next year, I’m just hoping to play some more games because I know I need to build it up. I’m feeling good so I want to keep going. For the team, we want to finish as high as possible and have as good a season as this one.”
Having seen plenty evidence of his ability during an injury-interrupted Championship campaign, there was always the feeling among supporters that a fully-fit Osman Sow would have been Hearts’ first 20-plus-goals-a-season striker for nearly 25 years. Whether or not the Swede would replicate this goal-scoring form in the Premiership, therefore, was arguably more reliant on his fitness than his unquestionable ability.
Any doubts in this regard were eventually dispelled, however, by the way in which Sow asserted himself in the top flight, the 27 competitive appearances he made by late January 2016 a testament to his improved physical condition. The goal-scoring continued as a result and for the second season in a row, he reached double figures in a maroon jersey.
Of course, that form was not going to go unnoticed, and as Neilson was tying up extended contracts for other key players like Arnaud Djoum and Igor Rossi, rumours were slowly circulating that Sow’s longer term future would be more difficult to secure. With reports emerging that both Rangers and Celtic were set to jostle for his signature with clubs south of the border, supporters reluctantly started to accept that a player of Sow’s ambition was destined to leave for nothing at the end of the season. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, when news emerged that Hearts had reached a deadline day agreement to sell Sow to Chinese club Henan Jianye for a reported £1.5m: an astonishing fee for a player with only five months left on his contract and arguably the best bit of transfer business done by Hearts in many years.
After his final appearance for Hearts in the goalless draw with Hamilton at New Douglas Park, Sow returned to Tynecastle to say his farewells prior to kick off in the Scottish Cup tie against Hibs on 7 February 2016 and to receive the acclaim of supporters who had, for the first time in his career, helped him feel at home. Speaking in November 2015, Sow said:
“This is as settled as I’ve ever felt at a club. My football career has been too stop-start until now. But I’m content here. My career needed this — I had to stay somewhere and focus. The fans have been amazing to me and I just want to give something back to them.”
A key component in Hearts’ resurgence during his 18-month spell, Sow certainly gave plenty and although supporters were naturally disappointed about his decision to move elsewhere, few will have begrudged him the opportunity, particularly when it has been so profitable for the club. As a result, Osman Sow’s legacy at Hearts will extend far beyond his efforts on the pitch. As the first success story of the club’s new approach to recruitment and an example of what can be achieved with hard work and commitment, Sow will henceforth be seen as the benchmark on which Hearts base future negotiations with prospective recruits who are looking to revitalise their careers.
For Osman Sow’s Hearts stats, visit his London Hearts Profile.