Like many of Miguel Pallardo’s Scottish Championship-winning team-mates discovered in the summer of 2015, pragmatism trumps sentimentality in the pursuit of progress at Hearts these days.
As a player who was deemed surplus to requirements only a year after being one of the team’s key figures in a title-winning campaign, Pallardo will arguably be viewed as one of the most illustrative examples of that ethos.
Prior to his arrival in Edinburgh, Pallardo had spent his entire career in his native Spain, where he started out in Valencia’s youth academy. Having made his first-team debut as a teenager in February 2005, he was eventually promoted on a full-time basis for the 2006/07 season, during which time he made a further ten La Liga appearances and sampled Champions League football in group matches against Roma and Olympiakos. Unfortunately, Pallardo struggled for regular game time at the Mestalla and he was farmed out on loan to Madrid-based Getafe, for whom he made 17 appearances during the 2007/08 season.
Despite signing for Getafe on a permanent basis the following year, Pallardo was immediately sent out on loan to recently-relegated Levante in his native Valencian Community, where he spent three fruitful seasons as a first-team regular, making 89 appearances as he helped the club secure promotion back to La Liga in 2010 and consolidate their top-flight status the following season.
Although his service was enough to secure a permanent move to the club, injuries started to mount and appearances became less frequent as a result. A handful of games in the league and Copa Del Rey in 2011/12 and even fewer the following season led to another loan move — this time to Segunda Division side UD Almeria — where he played ten times (predominantly as a substitute) in the second half of the 2012/13 season, which ended with Almeria’s promotion to the top flight.
Coincidentally, Almeria was one of only three teams Pallardo faced the following season after his return to Levante, the other two being Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid (away games which ended in 7–0 and 3–0 defeats respectively). The hour he played at the Santiago Bernabeu in March 2014 turned out to be his last on Spanish turf before his move to Scotland, where he would soon be immersed in a very different footballing culture.
Although relatively unknown to his new supporters, Pallardo’s arrival was hailed by manager Robbie Neilson as a significant coup for the club:
“He’s got a great pedigree. He’s played a lot of games in La Liga. He’s played for big teams and made some big moves, so I’m delighted to get him in. As you’d expect from someone who’s played a lot in La Liga, he’s got great technique. He understands the game; he moves the ball quickly and intelligently into attacking areas. He’s still a bit away in terms of fitness, but he will be a great addition to the squad.”
Having played very little first team football the previous season, it was a while before Pallardo commanded a regular starting place. His first two appearances for Hearts came as a substitute, firstly away to Queen of the South at the start of October and then two weeks later at home to Dumbarton. His first start came nearly a month after that — a 2–1 away win against Falkirk — from which point he went on to play in every game bar three until the end of the season, scoring his only goal for the club in a 4–1 win over Alloa at the Inodrill Stadium in January 2015.
With years of La Liga experience under his belt, Pallardo had a hugely positive impact on the team which made him an instant fans’ favourite. The fact that he played the full 90 minutes in the vast majority of games after his first start was a testament to the consistency he showed throughout the Championship-winning campaign. His technique and composure on the ball made him an absolute standout in the more humble surroundings of the Scottish second tier, while his doggedness off the ball showed he could hold his own in a physical battle against less cultured opponents, belying any stereotype about soft Spanish footballers.
Having initially signed for only one year, Pallardo’s form earned him a year’s extension on his contract when the Championship season drew to a close. It was a deal that the majority of fans were delighted with at the time, having grown to regard the diminutive Spaniard as Hearts’ strongest midfield component and a player that would adjust to the Premiership with relative comfort.
Unfortunately, a knee injury in pre-season forced Pallardo to miss the opening six games of Hearts’ return to the top flight and when he eventually made a return to action at home to Aberdeen, his lack of fitness and match practice was clear for all to see. At the time, most would have been forgiven for regarding that as a direct consequence of his extended period on the sidelines, though as the season progressed, it became clear that he was simply struggling to cope with the increased pace of the Premiership. That struggle to keep up manifested itself in an increased yellow card count, most notably in three highly-charged encounters with Aberdeen, one of which saw Robbie Neilson substitute the midfielder for his own good after only half an hour.
As a result, Pallardo never quite exerted the same midfield dominance that characterised his debut season and he soon found himself restricted to a bit-part role behind the likes of Arnaud Djoum, Prince Buaben and Perry Kitchen. Despite stating his desire to remain at the club, he was unable to prove himself worthy of a new contract and left at the end of his second season, though did so having made the kind of contribution to Hearts’ resurgence that will ensure he is fondly remembered by supporters for years to come.
For Miguel Pallardo’s Hearts statistics, visit his London Hearts page.