THEY may have lost a number of their biggest names over the summer, but Hearts captain Marius Zaliukas reckons that the club’s players and supporters will not allow that fact to signal a drop in their standards.
The Scottish Cup winners said farewell to the nucleus of their side at the end of last season as clubs all over the country cut their cloth to suit in the wake of Rangers’ relegation to the Third Division.
But while the likes of Ian Black, Rudi Skacel and Craig Beattie have all gone through the Tynecastle exit doors, the Lithuanian says Hearts must still target success on three fronts this season.
He insisted today that he and his teammates will go all out to claim both domestic cups over the course of the new campaign, as well as pushing Celtic all the way at the top of the SPL table.
And he said: “Team spirit is very good, we are all very friendly in the dressing room and that will probably help us. It doesn’t matter that we have so many youngsters, our target is probably still to get both Cups and maximum results in the league.
“It’s going to be very hard this season. Everyone wants to achieve second place but we’re ready for that challenge and we’ll work hard. Why can’t we achieve? Obviously the youngsters want to prove everyone wrong who are writing us off because we have a team of youngsters.
“And from what I’ve seen in training I think it will be quite a good season. I haven’t looked at what the other teams have done, I’m concentrating on our club and working hard every day.
“Everything is possible if you believe in yourself and working in the right direction.”
While many have bemoaned the lack of funding available to bolster the first-team squad, Zaliukas reckons that the injection of youth into the current pool has, in fact, made the senior players work even harder than last season.
And the big defender insists that the natural confidence that comes with youth, combined with the experience that remains in the ranks, can serve Hearts well.
While Zaliukas is a big kid at heart he is, unbelievably, the second oldest in the current pool of players at Tynecastle at the ripe old age of just 28.
Even he finds it difficult to accept and said: “I’ve been back in Scotland for three weeks and we’ve been working hard in pre-season. Actually, with all the youngsters we have, they are pushing the senior players to work harder and harder. I’m second oldest in the squad and it’s quite hard to get my head around that idea. But I’d say the youngsters have been very impressive in training and they are being treated the same as everyone else.
“I must admit I’m quite surprised at just how confident the youngsters are in both training and in games. They’re working with the right attitude and it’s going to be a good season for a lot of them.
“They have been so calm and relaxed in the training and games, but at the same time focused on working hard. It’s changed days. When I was 22 I was one of the youngest but now 22-years-old is the age of most of the starting line-up.
“It’s a very young squad but I think it’s good for everyone and we have a couple of senior players who are trying to help them and these young boys are also pushing us in return.
The club does what it has to do. We have to work with what we have on the training ground with all the youngsters. I am very impressed with them and I think they will do well this season.”
The Hearts team has this year stayed at home for pre-season, playing games against the likes of Falkirk, Dunfermline and Raith Rovers instead of heading to Italy as they have done in recent times.
Zaliukas, however, insisted that he doesn’t mind training in the rain and, in fact, reckons they got off lightly when you consider the scorching temperatures at the training base that they used to visit under old manager Jim Jefferies.
“It’s certainly different weather-wise from recent pre-seasons in Il Ciocco,” he conceded. “I actually spoke to Jim Jefferies at the weekend when we played Dunfermline and he told me it was like 50 degrees in Italy, so from that point of view I’m quite happy to be training here.”
The Hearts players, of course, have a lot to live up to following last season’s finale when they beat their city rivals Hibs 5-1 to claim the final piece of silverware of the 2011/12 campaign.
The former Kaunas player still remembers that May afternoon like it was yesterday and is already looking forward to Hearts’ next chance to stamp their authority over Pat Fenlon’s men.
The first Edinburgh derby takes place just two weeks into the season at Easter Road and the Hearts players are aware that their supporters are determined to make the most of their visit.
Zaliukas smiled as he revealed: “Sometimes I watch it on Youtube the highlights and DVDs that we have. It keeps coming back but we now we have to forget about it and focus on the season.
“I am waiting for that first derby of the season and I think it will be impressive from a fans point of view. I heard that they are doing some good stuff and we as players want to make sure it’s 12 (undefeated) in a row. I have not watched the entire game yet but I will definitely. It was a special day for all of us and you’re going to have emotions when I watch it again.”
The Hearts skipper also admitted that he was shocked at the news former team-mate Ian Black would be prepared to play in the Third Division with newly-relegated Rangers.
The midfielder looks set to sign for the Ibrox side, who will have to climb through the divisions if they are to play in the top flight again.
Zaliukas reckoned that the state of the game financially had something to do with that decision, saying: “I’m surprised he decided to go there to the third division. It’s his life and he does what he thinks is best for him and his family and I wish him all the best.
“I was expecting him to go to England. But we can see what is happening with the crisis in football, the economics.
“I hope he is going to find a good club.”