For the umpteenth time in recent reasons, Hearts showed on Saturday why they’re one of the most resilient teams in British football.
For all the continual off-field carnage and routine shedding of key men and managers, the Tynecastle side’s in-built resolve, which has become their trademark over the past five years and more, remains undiminished. The phrase “write them off at your peril” could easily have been coined for modern-day Hearts. There can be no team as battered and bruised as the Gorgie outfit that has somehow soldiered on to such gallant effect on the field of play.
Ever since Csaba Laszlo steered the team with no recognised striker to third in the SPL, Hearts have made a habit of defying the odds. From beating Rangers 2-1 with the much-maligned Christian Nade as the lone striker on the first day it was revealed wages hadn’t been paid on time back in December 2008, right through to defeating the form team in Scotland in a League Cup semi-final with ten men and a team half-full of untested kids, as they did at Easter Road on Saturday, Hearts have become accustomed to prospering in adversity.
Put a barrier in their way and, invariably, as long as there are 11 men – or ten, on occasions – wearing Hearts jerseys, they’ll hurdle it when it matters most. As well as getting by without any prolific strikers over the past five years, Hearts players have also had to deal with colleagues being sidelined for political reasons, late wage payments, unpopular managerial changes, major squad cutbacks and concerns about the club’s very existence.
Despite the general air of negativity which has gripped the club at various points, however, the team on the pitch has consistently finished in the top six, beaten the Old Firm regularly, dominated Hibs and achieved draws away to both Tottenham and Liverpool. And of course, they emerged from a period of extreme gloom midway through last season to stun Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final and then crush Hibs in the final.
Now, at a time when some feared the much-depleted Jambos might be battling relegation, they find themselves only eight points off fourth place with two games in hand and buoyant at the prospect of another final, which they really had no right to reach. Not content with winning one tough tie on penalties – away to Dundee United – with only ten men, they repeated the trick on Saturday against buoyant Inverness.
The only fly in the ointment regarding their latest exploits is that the man who has emerged as an unlikely symbol of Hearts’ resilience over the past few years won’t be allowed to lead his troops into battle against St Mirren at Hampden on St Patrick’s Day. Marius Zaliukas, the captain, has been the one constant throughout this period of remarkable adversity-battling, to the point where he has gone from erratic opinion-divider to firm fans’ favourite and club legend.
In what will probably be the last of his seven seasons at Tynecastle, it would have been fitting if the big Lithuanian could have capped it by lifting back-to-back trophies as skipper.
Instead, as a result of one of the most ridiculous rules in football, he will watch what would have been the second-biggest game of his life from the stand for the hardly-heinous crime of picking up two bookings in the competition. Despite the sporadic lapses which have so far prevented him taking his career to the next level, Zaliukas has been a defensive linchpin for Hearts in pretty much all of their biggest accomplishments of recent times.
With every Hearts manager since 2007 having relied heavily upon the big centre-back, it will be a tad concerning for John McGlynn that he won’t be able to pick his big-game player, who was inspirational again on Saturday, for what will be the biggest game of the manager’s career.
While the suspended John Terry was widely mocked by non-Chelsea fans for hopping aboard the podium to help Frank Lampard lift the European Cup last May, there will be few Hearts supporters begrudging Zaliukas, who has done as much as anyone to help his beleaguered team reach the final, if he is invited to share in trophy-lifting duties with vice-captain Andy Webster, assuming, of course, his young teammates can overcome his considerable absence.