THIS time last year, Paulo Sergio was perched in the dugout at McDiarmid Park in front of a crowd of just over 3000 as Hearts took on St Johnstone in the Scottish Cup.
Fast forward 12 months, though, and things couldn’t be more different.
The former Tynecastle boss, now in charge of Romanian side FC Cluj, will lead his team into yet another glamour European tie, this time against Inter Milan at the imposing San Siro stadium on Thursday.
Cluj have already caught the eye on the European stage this season, having defeated Manchester United 1-0 at Old Trafford in the Champions League. While Cluj did not do enough to qualify for the latter stages of that blue riband competition and dropped down instead to the Europa League, their trip to Italy is all a far cry from that Valentine’s night in Perth when Hearts had to rely on an extra-time winner from Marius Zaliukas to send them through to the fifth round of the Scottish Cup.
The match was a replay, the two sides having failed to be separated at Tynecastle, and it was another close call in Perth as a Jamie Hamill penalty in stoppage time cancelled out Saints’ 84th-minute opener from Murray Davidson.
Sergio insisted today in an exclusive interview to the Evening News that he believes each and every one of the experiences he has been through as a player and coach have been invaluable in his career.
“I remember that night, we had already played them the previous week and drawn,” said the Portuguese. “The replay was a very tough game, but when we played St Johnstone it was always tough and very tight so it was good to get the win after extra-time.
“It was a very different situation for me back then, but it was still a moment that has helped to make my career. Now I am living another moment. Each moment, each thing that you go through, is very important for our career and I enjoyed being a coach in Scotland. Sometimes it was difficult, but I had many good times there.”
The Romanian football season’s winter break has just come to an end and, in an attempt to keep his players at the peak of their fitness, Sergio and Cluj have spent the last month at a training camp in Marbella. That ploy, in theory, should help the Romanian side’s chances, although they woke up on Monday morning to a snowfall significant enough to see them forced to move their training session indoors.
“We arrived in Italy on Sunday in order for our players to adapt to the temperatures because it is going to be different from what they were used to in Marbella.
“It is important that we adapt ourselves in whichever way is possible and don’t find excuses.
“We came three days before the game to adapt to the conditions, but it is quite funny really because it is snowing so we have had to improvise.
“I hope though that we can show that we are working well.
“I think that everyone recognises how strong they are, but this is football and we believe in ourselves.
“We will do everything that we can to make sure that we get a positive result. This is what football is about. We like these kind of games and challenges to prove ourselves. We have to think that we can do something in Milan, although we know that it will be very difficult. They have everything that a manager or supporter would like to have available to them.”
Sergio believes that his side face a much tougher task in Milan than they were presented with in Manchester, partly down to the fact that they sold five players at the turn of the year and brought only one in to the club in return.
He insisted, though, that the Cluj camp remain confident in their own ability to give Andrea Stramaccioni’s team a tough match: “Yes, we have beaten Manchester United in the Champions League already this season but I think that this one is probably going to be even more difficult. That night was a good experience for everyone involved, but we did what we did at Old Trafford, now we have to put it behind us and get on with the game that is ahead of us.”
If Cluj are to pull off another shock on Thursday, they will have to improve on their record of never having won an away match in the Europa League although, admittedly, that run stretches only as far as five games.
Sergio continued: “Yes, our away record has not been great, but we should be proud of what we have achieved.
“To arrive at this stage we should be proud to be here in this moment and we must be professional, we must not think of what has happened before.
“We did well in the Champions League groups, we have a big squad and we will be up against big clubs,
“We always need to be pushing because I think that we could have a lot to say for ourselves in this competition.”
While his career has clearly moved on since leaving Tynecastle in the wake of Hearts’ 5-1 Scottish Cup final win over Hibs when he could not agree on a new contract, Sergio still classes himself as part of the Hearts ‘family’ and proudly labels himself as one of the club’s supporters.
He keeps in touch with the goings on at Tynecastle through old friends and his old assistant coach Gary Locke.
Sergio knows that John McGlynn’s Hearts must string results together between now and the league splitting if they are to have any hope of making it into the top half of the table.
They currently sit tenth place in the league table, but, while they have struggled to find consistency this year, Sergio reckons that just a few positive results could make all the difference – and quickly.
Remarkably, just eight points separate Inverness, who lie in second spot right now, and second-bottom St Mirren.
Hearts are one point better off than Danny Lennon’s men and Sergio believes that there is still time for them to turn their season on its head.
“I know that Hearts are looking to do better in the league, but the table is very close and very tight,” said Sergio.
“Everyone talks about league positions, but within two wins you can push yourself right up there again, so I don’t think Hearts fans should be too disappointed right now. I believe that the season is far from over, there are lots of games to play.
“They have to play a lot of younger boys, but that can work well for them. They are finding their own space, they are getting a chance to prove themselves and show their capacity.
“The players and the team are fighting for their lives. That will give them a spark and I hope that they continue their season very well.”