EIGHTEEN months managing Hearts prepared Csaba Laszlo perfectly for his new job as Lithuania’s national coach. The Hungarian, appointed by the Lithuanian Football Federation last week, today revealed his gratitude to Vladimir Romanov for strengthening his connections within the Baltic State. He feels his tenure at Tynecastle inadvertently helped him achieve his new position with the LFF.
Laszlo spent many hours while with Hearts watching Lithuanian club matches, both in person and on DVD, at the request of his paymaster. Romanov hoped he could identify the next Marian Kello or Andrius Velicka, but the experience is now set to benefit Laszlo in a different manner.
His knowledge of the Lithuanian game is strong as he begins the task of preparing the country for the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. He admits he learned much poring over television footage in his Riccarton office, and from numerous trips to eastern Europe on scouting missions for Hearts.
Those travels also familiarised Laszlo with people who run the game in Lithuania and made him a popular choice to replace the outgoing national coach, Raimondas Zutautas. When the LFF president Liutauras Varanavicius – himself a former Hearts director – scoured around for a new incumbent late last year, Laszlo was already well known and well informed. He was also out of work and became the obvious candidate from a four-man shortlist.
Ultimately, Laszlo feels a certain debt to Romanov for the doors which have opened, intentionally or otherwise, because of his association with Hearts’ majority shareholder. He isn’t afraid to express his thanks despite being sacked by Romanov exactly two years ago. “Lithuanian football is not a new thing for me. I had a lot of experience working with the people from Lithuania when I was with Hearts,” said Laszlo. “I know a lot of the players and I know the mentality and the culture. I didn’t speak about this very often but at Hearts I saw a lot of Lithuanian games because this was what the owner wanted, to see if there were any players he could bring to Hearts.
“Mr Romanov has no influence over the Lithuanian national team now, he concentrates more on his basketball team. I can tell everybody, even if sometimes people think I am angry because he sacked me, I am not. I always had a good relationship with Mr Romanov. Clubs sack their managers but I never talk badly about owners or chairmen.
“I must be fair. Mr Romanov brought me to Scottish football from Uganda and I am thankful to him for this. He made a positive link with me and this has stayed between us. I have a good relationship with all the chairmen and presidents I have worked with, even at Charleroi. The owner there, Mr (Abbas) Bayat, was more difficult than Mr Romanov.”
It is easy to understand why Varanavicius and the LFF directors opted for Laszlo. At 47, he is still young in managerial terms but carries a multitude of experience. From Borussia Moenchengladbach’s youth academy, to Ferencvaros, to assisting Lothar Matthaus with Hungary, then Uganda, Hearts and Charleroi, he has been round the block more than a few times.
He brings an understanding of the international scene, of club football and of which standard of footballer he wants in that yellow-and-green Lithuania shirt. Hearts players Marius Zaliukas and Arvydas Novikovas will remain in his plans, provided they are fit and performing to a high level.
“We will definitely see some new names in the squad in future,” continued Laszlo. “I like to see talented youth players who can make a difference. All the players must show a little bit more to play in my team. It is important to know that if you are given a jersey by your national team, it is not a gift. This is the highest level you can reach.
“We know Novikovas is a talented player but he is only a substitute for Hearts at the moment. When I left Hearts he went to St Johnstone on loan. Sometimes he plays ten minutes but this is not enough. Along with (David) Templeton, he was an upcoming player but now Templeton plays more often. It is important for Novikovas to get playing football and then we can talk about the national team. Zaliukas, if he is fit, will be more in the frame. With his age he is a good player but I must look at what happens with him at club level in the future.”
Laszlo certainly doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He knows the territory and what Lithuania should be expecting to achieve in the short to medium-term future. Having signed a two-year contract with a two-year option, the principal aim is qualifying for the 2016 European Championship in France.
Thankfully for him, the LFF are realistic in their ambitions for a country which has never reached a major tournament since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
“It’s a long-term project so I will spend a lot of time over there,” said Laszlo, who still lives in Edinburgh with his wife and two daughters. “The Lithuanian federation did not tell me I must qualify for Brazil 2014 and then the European Championship in 2016. They know the team is not in the position to do this yet. In the last European Championship they lost against Liechtenstein.
“The realistic target is 2016 because the number of teams who reach the final stages will increase to 24. I think, for that tournament, Lithuania has a chance.
“I have responsibility to oversee the under-21 team and the under-18 team to build up the youth system. I like this part of the job and I think I was chosen for this job because I have a good name in German youth football. I worked for Borussia Moenchengladbach for four and a half years and we produced players like Marcel Jansen and Eugen Polanski. I have experience and I am ambitious.
“I’ve said before that I have found a home in Edinburgh. I hoped that, after Hearts, I could get a job in the SPL. I went to Charleroi and came back but I am delighted with this job. I want to be successful in Lithuania.”
His last job as a national coach saw him nicknamed “The Miracle Man” by the people of Uganda, but Laszlo doesn’t live in the past. Perhaps because of his association through Hearts, he already feels an emotional tie with Lithuania. He and Varanavicius speak good English and other LFF dignitaries can converse with him in German. There is no need for Laszlo to practise the other languages in which he is fluent, Romanian and Hungarian.
“I promised the Lithuanian federation that I would wait for their decision in January because I got a good feeling from the first interview that it would be a good job,” he explained. “There were three other names on the shortlist and I am very happy that they chose me.
“I had an offer from a Greek club, and also Ferencvaros, and I was linked with the job at Hibs. Only three people were informed about the Hibs thing but I was not invited to any meeting. I did not speak with Rod Petrie directly.”
On Thursday, Laszlo flies to Lithuania to begin work in earnest. Aside from occasional visits to his native Hungary, his family home will remain Scotland for the foreseeable future.
“Many people ask my why I still stay in Edinburgh but I’ve never told the true reason before,” he said. “The reason is I like to see construction. In my home city, Budapest, the trams are 150 years old. I want to see the construction of the trams in Edinburgh, but I think I might stay for 15 years and they will never be finished!”
There is only so much of Csaba Laszlo you can take seriously. He has always talked a good game, but there is little doubting his determination to help raise the profile of Lithuanian football.