For someone who signed off from both of his spells at Hearts by scoring in a Scottish Cup final triumph, it comes as little surprise that Rudi Skacel is intent on finishing his career with a flourish.
At 37, the Czech is one of the oldest outfield players in Scotland at present. He is prepared for the fact his time as a professional footballer is nearing an end, and already has plans in place for when he hangs up his lethal left boot – “my right foot doesn’t exist,” he jokes. After close to two decades operating at a relatively illustrious level and playing in prime European cities like Prague, Marseille, Athens, Edinburgh and Berlin, Skacel doesn’t want it all to fizzle out in underwhelming fashion.
Make no mistake, the veteran midfielder is back in Scotland aiming to make a genuine impression at Raith Rovers, in what he knows could be his final calling. He has started his spell in Kirkcaldy, under friend and former Hearts coach Gary Locke, predominantly as a late impact substitute as he continues to build up his match fitness. However, after making his first start in Saturday’s Irn-Bru Cup defeat away to Forfar Athletic, Skacel is hellbent on finishing up with a prominent role befitting of someone who has played for the likes of Slavia Prague, Marseille, Panathinaikos, Southampton, Hertha Berlin and the Czech Republic national team, while also gaining legendary status at Tynecastle. In an exclusive interview with the Evening News at an Edinburgh cafe, Skacel is reluctant to delve deep into his relationship with Hearts out of respect for his current employers. For now, his focus is all on Raith Rovers and bowing out on a high.
“My career is almost over so I want to enjoy what is left of it and make sure I finish on the pitch instead of on the bench or in the stand,” said Skacel. “I think this will probably be my last season, but you never know, especially with me – I thought I’d finished two years ago!”
At that point, Skacel had missed out on the chance to rejoin Hearts for a third time when Locke, who had him lined up to sign after administration, didn’t have his contract renewed at Tynecastle. The Czech was resigning himself to retirement when, following two years without a club, Mlada Boleslav in his homeland tempted him back in just over a year ago. “Before I signed for Boleslav, I was close to finishing playing and starting something new,” he said. “I didn’t feel any strong interest from anyone and I didn’t see any big challenge, so I thought it would be a good time to finish playing. I still felt fit enough and I didn’t want to stop playing, but if you don’t have the right offer and the right challenge, it’s better to stop. I’d prefer to play at a high level or not at all.”
Skacel didn’t play regularly enough at Boleslav for his liking last season, and, always on the lookout for a fresh challenge, he soon found himself rocking up in Kirkcaldy this summer, ready for another dalliance with Scottish football. He is adamant that playing in the Scottish second tier still fits his criteria of playing at a high level, especially as he sensed Raith had big ambitions in a league also containing the relative heavyweights of Hibs and Dundee United.
“I am quite old for a footballer but I still felt I could play another year,” he said. “I wanted to enjoy one more year of football and Lockey offered me the chance to come to Raith Rovers. It was important that I know him and he knows me, so I knew it could work. We have a young squad with ambitions of fighting for at least top four and that is a good challenge for me.
“I always said I’d only ever play for a team that has big motivation – I wouldn’t just play for any team. Hibs and Dundee United being in the league was a factor because it is good to have these small derbies. I’m still hungry. I’m not here just to have fun. I want to win every week and hopefully soon I can play every week, score some goals and help the guys be close to the top two and make them nervous.”
So far, things are going well on that front. Rovers are second in the Championship – just two points behind Hibs and five ahead of United – after an unbeaten start. “I’m not surprised at how well we’ve done because Lockey told me we would have a decent team. The gaffer was my main reason for coming to Raith. He did a big job to make it possible to bring me over here, so hopefully I can pay him back. I was always close to him at Hearts. He is a nice guy and a big Jambo, and I’m glad we can work together. He can definitely go back up to a higher level. Hopefully he will have a good time at Raith and one day he can go back to Hearts. There is good chemistry between the coaching staff and the players, which is important because at a football team you work together every day, so you need to be like a family.”
Skacel still feels in great condition and, although his pace – which was never a major asset even in his prime – has waned further, he still feels he can make a notable impact once playing regularly. “I don’t want to say I’m 100 per cent, but I think I am fit,” he said. “Now I just need to build up my match fitness with some more minutes. I don’t feel 37 – I feel young. Of course, I won’t be any faster than I was before, but I’m here because I still believe I can compete against young boys. I was never particularly fast before, but I hope my technique can be an advantage.
“These days football is big business, and more and more it’s about young boys, so it’s harder for players of my age to play regularly even if we still have something to offer. Clubs want to develop young boys and sell them on – I get that. I have had a long career so it doesn’t bother me.
“You can’t play forever, unfortunately. A football career is short but I have played for about 19 years, so I can’t complain. When I was a young boy I was told to enjoy every day and every training session because it is a short career. I didn’t believe them at the time but the time has flown in, so I tell the young boys in the dressing-room ‘guys, enjoy yourselves because it goes so fast’. You can’t stop time but I’ve had fun.”
Skacel is contracted to Rovers for the remainder of this season. Thereafter, he knows it could be the end. “I always said I will play as long as someone at a good level wants me, but as soon as I feel like I am not good enough or struggling mentally or physically, I will finish straight away,” he said. “At my age, you don’t plan. I just want to see how this season goes. I am prepared for what happens when I finish playing. I know 100 per cent what I will do as me and my girlfriend [Eva] have prepared for it over the last two and a half years and we are excited about it.
“Everything is set and prepared for afterwards but I don’t want to say what we have planned just now because my biggest priority is still playing with Raith Rovers. All I can say is I won’t be far away from professional football. For now, I just want to enjoy being at Raith Rovers because I know it could be the end.”