Last year, as Accra Hearts of Oak stormed to Ghana Premier League and FA Cup glory, there were a number of star performers that head coach Samuel Boadu could call on to swing even the most tense of games.
Of the lot, Daniel Afriyie Barnieh was probably the most reliable, with the forward’s big-game temperament counting in Hearts’ favour more than once.
But, while Barnieh was rightly singled out and celebrated widely as arguably Hearts’ best player of the season, presented with opportunities to tell and retell the story of how he’d reached these heights, the former Ghana U-20 captain didn’t forget the man on whose ticket he had landed at Hearts in the first place.
“I came to Accra Hearts of Oak through my fellow player Abdul Aziz Nurudeen,” Barnieh revealed in an interview.
“We shared the same agent, so I was added to his negotiations, but I was to only come and play and be observed by the coach.”
Nurudeen had, in fact, been the actual subject of Hearts’ intense pursuit, as they sought to prise him away from lower-tier Vision FC in a deal eventually sealed in January 2020.
Like Barnieh, Nurudeen had to endure a slow start, only made worse by long-term injury. And so as Barnieh picked up and peaked in Hearts’ latest glorious campaign, Nurudeen could only watch from the sidelines, hoping to return to fitness and biding his time.
That time, after a rather long wait, is now.
Handed his chance by Boadu, industrious Nurudeen is already showing signs of the player Hearts had hoped he’d be. He has featured in just three games this term, but Nurudeen has overly impressed; his latest performance, securing a foothold in midfield for Hearts against best-in-the-land Kotoko last Sunday, drew plaudits aplenty.
Nurudeen proved equal to the task and to the occasion, equally adept at snapping into a tackle and pressing the opposition as at weaving his way through crammed spaces. There was no fear in his play; apparent, rather, was a rough and steady style that reflected in a willingness to do whatever it took.
Nurudeen may not be the most eye-catching footballer, and he is certainly not a flair player, but he does provide a vital service. You simply cannot pack a squad full of nifty, technical guys, can you?
There must be room for balance, which is just what Nurudeen offers Hearts with his unique skillset. The 23-year-old’s stamina, effort and drive so often wins the ball for his side high up the pitch, opening up channels for counter-attacks.
Although the ground that Nurudeen covers — and the rate at which he does so — is simply phenomenal, he is not just some workhorse. In Nurudeen’s locker, you’d also find the odd screamer, as well as the ability to pick out a 45-yard Hollywood pass or to alleviate pressure by turning his man from a standing position and winning a free-kick.
He may look like Bambi on ice at times but Nurudeen is fairly unshakeable when in motion, playing with a deceptive power and energy that must have served him well in his previous life as a full-back. His smartness on the ball, evident in how quickly he moves it in stretching opposition defences or retaining possession, is testament to that much.
Nurudeen also boasts a progressive passing range that is often understated and underappreciated, an aspect in which he has made noticeable improvement; it wasn’t too long ago, after all, that he was regularly slated by fans for one sideways pass too many and a perceived lack of creativity.
He has learnt and, most importantly, persevered, thus taking full credit for the fact that his spot in this Hearts team is no longer vulnerable. In Boadu’s bid to reconstruct a midfield still recovering from the losses of Benjamin Afutu Kotey and Emmanuel Nettey, Nurudeen presents himself as a smooth operator and an able workman.
So long after he joined Hearts, it looks like Nurudeen is finally taking his rightful place, a place of prominence, alongside — not in the shadow of — Barnieh.