Edgaras Jankauskas: Fights with Romanov & Lithuania’s weakness

Edgaras Jankauskas served Lithuanian with distinction as a player and now has the job of managing the national team. Pic: Getty
Edgaras Jankauskas served Lithuanian with distinction as a player and now has the job of managing the national team. Pic: Getty
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EDGARAS JANKAUSKAS is used to pressure. Arguing with Vladimir Romanov, booing from Hearts fans and a Scottish Cup parade are among his distinguished memories from Scotland. He brings Lithuania to Hampden Park on Saturday facing an entirely different kind of tension.

A 4-0 Scottish Cup semi-final win over Hibs there ten years ago is fondly recalled by the former Tynecastle striker. “That probably brought the Hearts supporters more happiness than winning the cup itself,” he laughs. Quickly reverting to serious mode, he acknowledges he is in charge of a group lacking such star quality ahead of the World Cup qualifier with Scotland.

Jankauskas is by some distance Lithuania’s most decorated footballer. He holds a Champions League winner’s medal, names clubs like Porto, Benfica and Real Sociedad on his CV, and won 56 international caps. Progress into the national manager’s chair seemed natural but his presence brings an air of expectation in this qualifying group.

It is a different kind of pressure to eyeballing Romanov and telling him he is wrong, which Jankauskas claims he did several times during two spells with Hearts. Lithuania want him to nurture a new generation of footballers but the 41-year-old feels the resources are not there.

When Jankauskas played, the core of Lithuania’s squad came from Hearts due to loan deals brokered by Romanov and the Lithuanian club FBK Kaunas. Jankauskas, Mikoliunas, Cesnauskis, Velicka, Zaliukas, Novikovas, Ksanavicius, Pilibaitis and Ivaskevicius were all regular names. Others like Tomas Danilevicius played in Italy’s Serie A. Cesnauskis and Novikovas remain in the squad but the former is now 35 and playing right-back in his homeland with FK Trakai. In a sense, than encapsulates the difficulties for Jankauskas.

“That’s his position for his club and he is doing quite well. He is not there just because he was my team-mate or my friend, he is selected because he deserves to be there,” explains Jankauskas. “You can see the problems we have. When you have a 35-year-old defender who is better than the younger ones, that is a problem itself. Deividas may not be a starter in the national team but with his fitness and experience, he deserves to be there.

“He is probably the only one left from the last group. The change of generation has been cruel for us because we didn’t develop a very good generation to follow. When I was a player, we had one or two players from the local league in Lithuania. Now, we have 14 or 15 out of 23 who play here. I wouldn’t say our league is much stronger than it was years ago.

“We have less players playing abroad in the strong competitions and that is a problem. That’s what I would like to change. I want more Lithuanian players playing in stronger leagues. When we face countries who have players in the Italian, Spanish, German and English leagues, we always have a problem.

“We are worn out and we have no energy to compete to the end of the game. We are not used to playing at that physical level. I still think that the Scottish league is very competitive. There are stronger European leagues on the technical side, but physically Scotland is so competitive. Playing at level every week, that’s how you progress.”

Lithuanians viewed Hearts as the big time during Romanov’s reign. Mass trials involving Eastern Europeans weren’t uncommon at Riccarton. The successful ones needed a thick skin, though.

“I don’t remember one time when the reason for a clash was nationality. We got more stick from outside for being foreigners,” says Jankauskas, who played for the Edinburgh club from 2005 to 2007 and returned as assistant coach to John McGlynn for the 2012/13 season.

“As you know, there were some tough times when supporters were against some of the board decisions. The most vulnerable unit was the players because it was easier to whistle at them in the stadium. I think we coped well with that and the Scottish players helped us. We all had one goal. We did our job professionally no matter the criticism from outside. We could not have won anything if there was something rotten in the team.

“I’ve been to places where the critics and fans were even more cruel. Instability in a club affects players negatively, of course, and you can see that in performances. We had no choice but to cope. We tried to have a professional approach every day. Sometimes it didn’t look too good because, subconsciously, you are affected by what is happening. It’s not just about on the pitch, you have to cope with all that negativity outside.”

Meetings with Romanov to beg for stability and sense would often antagonise the owner. “We had a few conversations and I did not always agree with him. I think, in the end, he respected people who had their own opinion,” says Jankauskas. “When you are surrounded by people who always agree with you, it’s not normal. It’s kind of suspicious. I think that was Romanov’s biggest problem. The people around him, a lot of them didn’t have enough character or bravery to give him an honest opinion.

“It’s no secret he wasn’t a football person. He was more of a businessman. There is nothing wrong if you don’t understand football, but it becomes a problem when the people around you always agree with your opinion.

“When we had discussions with Mr Romanov, sometimes we would get into arguments. Sometimes he didn’t like it. I knew that. You have to be straight and honest for the wellbeing of your team. We were in the team, the board was above, somewhere in another country. I didn’t want there to be a bad atmosphere within the team.”

Asked what the biggest disagreements were about, he remains coy. “It was a long time past. I would need time to bring all of the facts out. At the moment I am not concentrated on this.”

Romanov’s eight-year Tynecastle tenure ended when the club entered administration in 2013 with debts approaching £30million. He then went into hiding in Russia after Lithuanian authorities charged him with embezzling of £12m. He was arrested but then released in 2014 and his current whereabouts is unknown.

“Right now, I don’t know where Mr Romanov is, if he’s in trouble or if he’s okay. I hope he is doing well. I haven’t spoken to him in a long time,” says Jankauskas. “I think we have to say thanks to him because he did some good things for Hearts and for Edinburgh. I know everything finished not how he wanted but he should be remembered properly.

“I remember how happy the supporters were when we won the cup. I remember the parade in the city. I still remember the fan who got Romanov’s name tattooed on his back. I wouldn’t only say bad things because he is not in power any more. He made mistakes, we made mistakes, but we have to judge him correctly. He invested a lot of his money in the club.”

Jankauskas is investing himself in Lithuania’s international prospects. While Scotland started World Cup qualifying Group F with a 5-1 win in Malta, his country surrended a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 with Slovenia.

“I think, yes, the pressure is high but the biggest pressure I put on myself. I have no problem with media or public pressure. I know where we were as a nation and I know our possibilities. I look at things realistically.

“We all need to realise where we are, take a good look at each other and ourselves. We must stick together with full motivation and full application. Otherwise, we have no chance. We know the strength of our opponents and I’m not here to lie to my players. I won’t say we are at the same level as England or Slovenia because their players play week in and week out in the English league or the Italian league.

“Logically, we are a little bit behind them. We need to be united and use our main strengths – tactical, mental and technical. That’s the only way to compete. We were leading 2-0 against Slovenia but in the last 15 minutes we were out of gas. Those details tell you where you are lacking. We are lacking fitness for 90 minutes. It is not usual that we face teams playing at that rhythm. We don’t have enough experience of playing in the same leagues as their players.

“Every game is a cup final for us. It’s not the result that matters, it’s how you get the result. There is no magic. Sometimes you can get a positive result by accident but we need to understand what can bring constant success. We showed no fear against Slovenia, we dictated for spells and I want to build on that.”