RUDI SKACEL created quite a stir with his choice of squad number at Dundee United. The mischievous side of his nature means he is probably privately chuckling away to himself.
The Czech midfielder, idolised by thousands of Hearts fans, faces his former club tomorrow night in the Scottish Communities League Cup quarter-final. He will do so in the No. 51 shirt, a tribute to May’s Scottish Cup final trouncing of Hibs and his last game in a maroon shirt.
It could be interpreted as nothing more than a bit of banter, although some Easter Road regulars do not see it that way.
Those Hibs fans who aimed abuse at the United manager Peter Houston during his guest appearance on ESPN at Fir Park on Friday evening clearly aren’t happy at Skacel’s jibe upon signing for the Tayside club. Houston has apologised, claiming he didn’t realise the significance of Skacel’s request to wear No. 51 until it was too late. The damage has certainly been done.
Skacel enjoyed winding up Edinburgh’s green half throughout two spells at Tynecastle and clearly intends on continuing his very public love affair with the Hearts support. He trained at Riccarton earlier this month but was prevented from signing for the club for a third time due to a transfer embargo. His reception tomorrow night will be as warm as any afforded to a former player.
“It adds a bit of spice to the game. Everyone at Hearts knows everything about Rudi,” the Hearts manager John McGlynn told the Evening News. “He’s seeking employment and he’s got it at Dundee United. He’s just a player that plays for Dundee United now. Obviously we have a lot of respect for him but it’s about 11 v 11 and not just about Rudi Skacel.” Asked if he will put special plans in place to keep Skacel quiet, McGlynn replied: “We’ll wait and see.”
Now 33, the Czech made his United debut as a substitute at Love Street on Saturday and is likely to start on the bench again tomorrow. He signed a contract until January 30, with both parties already hinting that an extension is possible. Statistics demonstrate his scoring threat in Scotland, for he lashed 48 goals in 109 competitive appearances at Hearts. Lashed being a particularly apt description for many of them.
Striker John Sutton is concerned about whether Skacel’s wand-like left foot could eliminate Hearts from the League Cup. “We’ll just have to keep the ball off his left foot anywhere within 30 yards of goal,” said the Englishman, who is hoping to start the game at Tannadice after scoring the equaliser in the 2-2 draw with Ross County.
“He was training with us and looked really fit and sharp. I don’t know how far he would’ve progressed with us because we have the transfer embargo. We’ll have to be wary. Dundee United are a good team without Rudi Skacel so they’re going to be even more dangerous with him.”
The number on his back won’t cause any acrimony tomorrow. If anything, it will heighten the volume of applause when he emerges from the tunnel to warm up for the first time.
Skacel will expect a hostile reception on Sunday week, though, when United visit Easter Road.
“It’s not my style to upset people,” explained Houston. “I said there were a few numbers available and he asked for 51. Call me naive but Gary Hooper wears 88 and Victor Wanyama wears 67 and I never thought of 51 being 5-1. Trust me when I say that.
“It’s registered straight away and, once you register it, you can’t go back on it. I apologise to the Hibs fans. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have given him the number. I’m not in the habit of trying to wind people up or noise other clubs up. Hibs are a fantastic club.
“I was at Fir Park doing TV and there were boys running down the aisles trying to have a go at me. I spoke to a couple of them and they were very reasonable. But I wouldn’t have given Rudi the 51 if I’d thought about it clearly. It wasn’t until the next day that someone mentioned it to me.
“We’ve got Rudi until the end of January. I’m sure he’s a player we’d like to keep. He was brilliant in negotiations. He’s on nowhere near the kind of money he was probably on at Hearts.
“All he wants to do is play. Where I’ve got it wrong is letting him pick the 51 without switching on to it.”