IAN BLACK places Paulo Sergio on a metaphorical pedestal. “He’s up there with the best I’ve worked under,” says the midfielder.
A lifelong Hearts fan, Black is understandably eager to see Sergio remain at Tynecastle next season. If not, he believes the Portuguese coach would be a genuine coup for any English club seeking an ambitious and extremely capable leader.
Black is now a free agent after completing the finest year of his career under Sergio at Hearts last season. One in which he was touted for international recognition by his manager due to stand-out performances despite the discomfort of a hernia. Hearts remain in discussions with Sergio over a possible contract extension and have a contractual option to keep him for another 12 months. Terms have yet to be finalised and Black hopes for a positive solution, even though his own ties to the club are severed.
Should an agreement fail to transpire, he believes Sergio could thrive at the top level in England. Swansea City, Norwich City, West Bromwich Albion and Hull City all have managerial vacancies that must be filled before the new season begins. If Hearts do not pull out the stops to retain Sergio, Black feels the 44-year-old could easily establish himself south of the Border.
“He’s up there with the best I’ve worked under and I think I’ve had my best season working with him,” Black told the Evening News. “I owe him a lot of thanks and it would be great to see Hearts tie him up. If they don’t, I’m sure he’s good enough to go down south and take charge of a club there. He could manage that no problem. He could definitely thrive in England, his CV alone says that with the clubs he’s been at. I’m sure he could go down there and do really well.
“I think Hearts have to do everything they can to keep him. He knows how to get the best out of kids. He’s a great motivator, he knows what he wants and he’s ambitious. I think the club would be silly not to do everything to snap him up.”
Plans to promote more youth academy graduates will see an influx of younger players to the senior squad at Tynecastle and Sergio is the best person qualified to aid their development, according to Black.
“He’s been there and he’s seen the kids,” continued the midfielder. “It would be a rash decision to bring someone else in who doesn’t know the kids and expect him to know who is capable of going into the team straight away. Paulo Sergio has been there last season, he’s seen them and he’ll know who has which attributes.”
Black is following developments closely as he recovers from last week’s hernia operation. Staples come out tomorrow and he can resume running next week. His recovery is progressing well, although attempts at securing a club for next season are lagging by in comparison.
He is nonetheless relaxed about his future. Last month’s Scottish Cup final victory over Hibs was Black’s last in a maroon shirt. Now he must pound the pavements by himself and train in local gyms to maintain fitness in case a new club appears on the horizon. It is slightly surprising that the 27-year-old, approaching the peak years of his career, does not have a list of suitors queuing at the door of his East Lothian home.
Recent media reports quoted him on supposed interest from Rangers, but none of that was instigated by the player. He is slightly irked at being portrayed as someone willing to tout himself around. For now, Black has his feet up. Recovering from an operation and preparing to hit the ground running – literally.
“Everything went well and I’m on the road to recovery now. I’m quite fortunate that Gary Mackay, my agent, has a friend with a gym so he’s going to help me out and keep me ticking over so that I’m ready to come back wherever I may end up. I’ve not had anything, no interest from anybody. I’ve read all the stuff in the papers and I’ve been speaking to Gary. He’s had no feedback either.
“It’s obviously quite annoying when you see reports in the papers and there’s nothing solid in it. I certainly don’t want to be touting myself around because clubs will be laughing at me. I’m just enjoying my holiday and recovering from my operation. I’m hoping people will get in contact with my agent.”
England holds particular appeal given Black was released by Blackburn Rovers as a 19-year-old in 2004. He returned north to join Inverness before being lured back to Edinburgh by Hearts in 2009. As a more mature and complete footballer, he is keen to test himself again south of the Border where Bolton Wanderers are reportedly interested, but admits he cannot be overly fussy about new employers.
“There is unfinished business in England but I can’t rule anywhere out. I’ve seen all these reports in the papers and sometimes papers are right. I won’t rule anything out, I’m keeping my options open. I’m unemployed and I need a job. Hopefully in the next week or two I’ll have two or three options I can weigh up, possibly on either side of the Border. I’m not too fussed about it. I think I will have an offer somewhere.”
Keeping him going meantime is the endless thanks from Hearts supporters all over east central Scotland. “People are still coming up to me and congratulating me,” he said, mindful that he went down in Tynecastle folkore as part of the team which beat Hibs 5-1 in the all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final.
“It’s great for myself and the rest of the boys to be able to say that. Leaving the club on that note, I think all the boys will be legends for life. It looks great on my CV and I was delighted with the whole day. It was a great last game for Hearts. The boys had a great time afterwards.”
Although resigned to a summer departure for some time, with Hearts announcing it in April, that did not make his exit any easier. “We had a discussion with the club and it was for financial reasons. We came to an agreement because they were trying to cut the wage bill. I said that was fine and I said I would go and try somewhere else. It was really difficult to say that because I’m a Hearts fans and the supporters and the manager had all been great with me.
“I knew it was going to be tough because of the season we had financially. The club always said they were going to be cost-cutting. There were always going to be players leaving and it’s just unfortunate I had to be one of them.”