Soccer Sport

Valdas Ivanauskas on Hearts 10 years on, working with Romanov, and why Craig Gordon should sign for Chelsea

A post-truth regime based on alternative facts existed in Scotland long before Donald Trump decided he fancied running for President. There was a heavy Russian influence behind this one, too.

The picture of Vladimir Romanov’s tenure at Hearts may never fully crystallise but it remains one of the most intriguing episodes in Scottish football history. A myriad figures, many from the old Soviet bloc, came and went in a blur during Romanov’s nine-year involvement at Tynecastle that began with him arriving to a rousing reception and ended with the club in administration.

Among those who passed through the doors was Valdas Ivanauskas. The Lithuanian pitched up in Edinburgh in 2005 having previously worked as assistant manager with his country’s national team, and as manager of FBK Kaunas, another Romanov-run club. Initially deployed as a coach at Tynecastle, he would step up to become manager in March 2006 for what would be a successful but predictably turbulent 12 months in charge.

The highlight was undoubtedly the Scottish Cup final victory over Gretna, thumping Hibernian in the semi-final along the way. “We finished second in the league which meant we would play in the Champions League qualifiers,” Ivanauskas recalls down the line from Cyprus where he is now managing Ethnikos Achna. “But all the Hearts fans I met kept telling me, “Valdas, you must win the cup!” This was the most important thing for them. And we did it. It is a memory that will stay with me for my whole life.

“Hearts was a very important time for me in my career. It was my first job outside of Lithuania and I was only 38 or 39 years old, still a young coach. It was all new for me and I had to learn quickly. If Romanov had wanted me to do it longer then maybe I could have. But we had discussions and there was a change. But I am happy. There is no problem.”

Working for Romanov brought its own challenges given his propensity for making regular and unexpected changes of personnel, and issuing rambling tirades against the media, the game’s governing bodies and just about anyone else who happened to cross his path.

“It was not so easy at times,” admitted Ivanauskas of the man thought to be still in exile in Russia while Lithuanian authorities pursue him on charges relating to the collapse of his bank Ukio Bankas. “It was difficult to work with him. He was a businessman and he wanted to change Scottish football. It wasn’t so easy because of history and the power of Celtic and Rangers. And he was under some pressure because of the things he said he would do.

“But he tried. And at the start for a few years it went well, the club was winning trophies and having success. At the end, of course, it did not go so well and the Hearts and the supporters had a very difficult time. But I hope they will remember the good times with Romanov as well as the bad times.”

If there is a regret from Ivanauskas’ time in charge – beyond the fact it was so brief – it was that Hearts did not strengthen sufficiently for the Champions League qualifiers that summer. Given the parlous state of their finances come administration perhaps it is better that they didn’t, but Ivanauskas believes that reaching the group stages would have meant a dramatic leap forward for the club. Instead, they tumbled out in the final qualifying round to AEK Athens.

“We lost a lot of players that summer,” he added. “That was a problem. We had to invest more for the future at that time. Romanov brought some players but they were not good enough. At the time I was a young coach, still a young guy. But now after 10 years I can look back and think that if we had signed more players, better players, then we could have qualified for the Champions League. And if we had done that then I think everything would have changed for Hearts in the future.”

Ivanauskas had inherited a squad full of strong personalities, many of whom also went on to become managers. But they were also not afraid to speak their minds. The Lithuanian returned from a temporary leave of absence in the autumn of 2006 to inherit the fall-out from the “Riccarton Three” press conference, when Steven Pressley, Paul Hartley and Craig Gordon elected to make known their dissatisfaction about the “significant unrest” around the club.

It was the beginning of the end for the trio. Ten years ago this month, Pressley signed for Celtic at the start of the window and Hartley at the end, while Gordon would hang on until the summer before moving to Sunderland having been dropped from the team for a while. A decade on, however, and Ivanauskas speaks only warmly about his three former players.

“We had a very good team, full of professional players,” he recalled. “I am not so surprised that many of them are now managers. When Steven and Paul left Hearts at that time and went to Celtic we lost a lot of experience from our team. We lost two leaders, two guys who had a great spirit. And both were also clever, intelligent players. It was a problem for Hearts. But I give these guys my best regards.”

Gordon is the only one of the trio still playing. Ivanauskas notes from afar the success the goalkeeper has enjoyed at Celtic and the interest in him from Chelsea. His advice to the 34 year-old would be to go.

“It was Craig who really won us the cup with his penalty save,” he recalled. “He was only 23 years old at that time but he was already, in my opinion, one of the best goalkeepers in the world. He was so important for our team, very safe and reliable.

“I have followed what is happened with Craig; going to England, his injury problems and now doing well at Celtic. He is a good man, a very intelligent man. I hope he can keep playing for a few more years yet.

“At the moment he is playing for Celtic every week and winning championships. But at 34 maybe this is going to be his last contract. My opinion is that, if he has a good offer from Chelsea, he must do it. Maybe he will have to wait for his chance but if the other goalkeeper gets an injury then he could be playing every week in the Premier League. If Craig asks me I would say, “go to England”.”

Ivanauskas has followed the fall and rise of Hearts in recent time, and, despite being happily ensconced under a Cypriot sun, would not rule out the prospect of one day returning to Scotland.

“It was difficult at times but those were two very happy years of my career at Hearts. So the club is in my heart. I followed their situation and it was very difficult for a few years. But now they are back in the Premiership and doing well again. I am pleased especially for the Hearts supporters as they were so great with me before. They deserve to have good times again.

“Scotland is a football country like England and Germany. So maybe if there was a chance to come back, I would be ready.”

Source : HeraldScotland

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