TWO days before Christmas, a magical figure by the name of Rudolf will visit Tynecastle. He doesn’t pull a sleigh or anything. In fact, a Superman cape would be more appropriate in the eyes of Hearts fans.
Rudi Skacel returns to his spiritual home for possibly his last-ever appearance there when Hearts host Dundee United this weekend. He is desperate to play and score despite the pain of nine stitches in a thigh wound.
The Czech midfielder is rated slightly doubtful after colliding with advertising boards during United’s astonishing 4-4 draw with Inverness at Tannadice last weekend, a game which saw his first goal for the Tayside club. He is, of course, better known for rippling rigging in a maroon shirt.
A total of 48 goals in 109 games spanning two spells at Hearts guarantees him a raucous welcome on Sunday whether he is on the field or in the stand. His general tormenting of Edinburgh rivals Hibs down the years has also influenced his status as a Tynecastle legend. Now 33-years-old, Skacel signed for United in October on a short-term contract which runs until January 30. Curiously, that leaves him a free agent on the last day of the transfer window. Joining Hearts for a third time is not beyond the realms of possibility. That’s despite him declaring after May’s historic Scottish Cup final win over Hibs that he wanted a “new challenge”.
For now, Skacel faces an emotional re-appearance in Gorgie. He will line up against Hearts in front of a strong Tynecastle support for the first, and possibly last, time in his career if he proves his fitness to the United manager Peter Houston. Sentiment will be impossible to avoid. Speaking exclusively to the Evening News, the player said he intends to deliver a memorable display because he may never play there again.
“I don’t know how I will feel,” he explained. “I’m pleased because when I left Hearts in the summer I thought I would never come back. This is a nice opportunity for me. Football is strange. In the summer I couldn’t imagine I would play at Tynecastle again in the future. Now look at me – I’m going back as an enemy. You never know what can happen in the future, so I’m happy that I can play this game. Tynecastle is a special place for me.
“It will be a little bit weird being in the away team, but I want to play. Maybe it’s the last time I can play at Tynecastle so I want to enjoy it, score a goal and win the game. It will be strange but I’m experienced enough to handle anything that happens there. I don’t think about emotions. I just try my best. I need to win the game, that is my basic aim.
“I hope everything will be fine with the injury and I can play. I had a long break in the summer and I didn’t play for a long time, so I’m looking for every opportunity to play. Everyone is looking forward to playing at Tynecastle because of the atmosphere. We desperately need three points because I think we should be higher up in the league. We should be in the top three, so I just want to win.”
Skacel has donated his time in recent weeks to help raise funds for his former club, whose very existence was threatened by a winding-up order last month from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs over unpaid tax. Images of him in a “Save Our Hearts” T-shirt pulling pints behind the bar of the Brauhaus in Edinburgh’s Lauriston Place underline the affection he still holds for his old club.
Memories will doubtless be coursing through his mind should he pull on the tangerine shirt – No. 51 to commemorate Hearts’ Scottish Cup final rout – at the weekend. He knows he will face the very colleagues with whom he partied at Hampden Park only a few months ago. Any damage he inflicts is unlikely to dilute the affection towards him.
“I feel sorry for the Hearts supporters,” he continued. “They have done a great job and tried to help their club, but I am a United player now. I focus on myself. I wish all the best to Hearts but my priority is United and I am a professional. Hopefully everything will be sorted at Hearts because they are a big club. I want to disappoint their supporters a little bit on Sunday because I want to score and I want three points so much.”
And how will he celebrate if he does score? Will he give it the old kiss-the-finger-then-point-to-the-boot routine? Perhaps a “we’re not worthy” salute? “You never know what you will do. First, I have to score. That is the most important point.”
The burning question all Hearts fans want answered is whether January 31, 2013, might be the date of Skacel’s third homecoming. He is coy with his answer. There is “definitely a chance” of him staying with United, but he offers little more than that.
“I’m only thinking week-to-week just now and in January I will make the best decision for myself and sign a contract somewhere,” he said. “I want to play football for another three or four years. I feel very well and I still have a big appetite for football. I’m glad I’m back playing again. In this sport it is difficult to say what will happen in the next couple of years. You need to think in weeks and months, especially at my age.”
Right now he is only thinking in days. Like the three that lie between him and possibly the most emotive football match of his career. Skacel was a double Scottish Cup-winner with Hearts, he has represented his country and played at the top level in Germany, England and France. He has, however, never experienced the conflicting feelings brought by playing against Hearts at Tynecastle.