CLIMB off the bench just 16 minutes from the end at Celtic Park, lash home two goals to silence the home support and propel Hearts to the League Cup semi-finals. No problem when you’re Andrius Velicka. On Halloween 2007 the Lithuanian was in the form of his life as he single-handedly secured a 2-0 quarter-final win for Hearts at Parkhead. The frightening thing is the Edinburgh club have won there only once since that memorable night.
On Halloween 2007 the Lithuanian was in the form of his life as he single-handedly secured a 2-0 quarter-final win for Hearts at Parkhead. The frightening thing is the Edinburgh club have won there only once since that memorable night.
They travel to Celtic this weekend eager to improve on that disappointing record, whilst Velicka is at a Turkish training camp with his current club, AZAL PFC of Azerbaijan. His predatory instincts, even at the age of 33, would still be an asset to Hearts. He left Tynecastle in February 2008 after playing what he considers the best football of his life, underlined by 26 goals in 56 games. The two which knocked Celtic out of the League Cup were the pinnacle, helping earn him a move to Viking Stavanger, which became the prelude for a subsequent transfer to Rangers.
Velicka is surprised to hear that Michael Stewart’s winning penalty in October 2009, also in a League Cup quarter-final tie, is the only time Hearts have triumphed away to Celtic in the intervening five years. League victories have been conspicuous by their absence which has perhaps prolonged the effect of Velicka’s efforts during those 16 treasured minutes. The striker arguably reached a career peak that night in Glasgow. Joining Rangers was supposed to be his apex but, quite simply, he could not top what he achieved at Hearts.
“I played the best football of my career at Hearts,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview. “I think in total I scored about one goal every two games. Hearts had a good team with good players at the time and for me, a player from Lithuania, coming to Scotland was a very good move.
“When I came to Edinburgh there were a lot of Lithuanian players at Hearts. There were so many I can’t remember. That made it easy to settle into the team. (Valdas) Ivanauskas was the coach and he was also Lithuanian. Everyone helped me because my English was not so good. I only learned English in school so I hadn’t spoken to people regularly in that language. All the Lithuanians at Hearts helped me.
“That night against Celtic was just the best, one of my best games for Hearts. I went on as sub, scored twice and we won 2-0 at Celtic Park. It’s not easy to win in Glasgow so to come on as sub and score two goals was amazing. I knew how big the result was.
“To win at Celtic Park or Ibrox was a huge result. That game was a quarter-final and we then played Rangers in the semi-final and lost at Hampden, so that shows how hard it was to beat Celtic or Rangers.”
The old saying that if you can’t beat them, join them, was never more appropriate than when Velicka arrived at Ibrox in summer 2008.
He was accused of joining Viking in Norway with the sole intention of moving on to Glasgow only months later, thus avoiding asking the Hearts majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov to grant a direct transfer to one of the Old Firm. In hindsight, Rangers was the wrong choice.
“I played in the first league game, we won 1-0 and I scored,” recalled Velicka. “I played in the next game but then Walter Smith said I’d played too much football. By then I had played for 18 months solid with no pre-season because Norway played through the summer and he said I needed some rest. Then I got ill. I didn’t play again until March, I think. I scored four goals in four games when I came back, but I expected more from my time at Rangers. They had six or seven strikers like Kris Boyd, Kenny Miller, Kyle Lafferty and Jean-Claude Darcheville. It was not easy to get into that team.
“Now I can think that maybe joining Rangers was not the right thing. Maybe I should have gone to England to the Championship. I’m happy that I went to Rangers. I love them as much as I love Hearts, but Rangers was another level. It gave me the opportunity to play in the Champions League and in Europe every year. That’s why I signed for them.”
Velicka presently finds himself in another awkward predicament. He signed a two-year contract with AZAL last summer and is enjoying his football in the Azerbaijani Premyer Liqa. However, his wife and daughters – the youngest just two months old – remain in Lithuania. “All I do is train, sleep and eat. There is nothing to do,” he admitted. “The football is a good level here and there are some good teams. (Deividas) Cesnauskis is here, but he is in a different team (FC Baku). It’s difficult without my family here. We were always together in Edinburgh, in Norway and in Glasgow. I was home for Christmas and New Year, but now we are in Turkey for a training camp. I don’t know when I’ll see my family again. Maybe March.”
So why did he venture out to Azerbaijan in the first place? “It’s a new opportunity. I’d never been here before and everything is new. When I went back to Lithuania to two years I go I thought that was it and I would finish my career there. Football is strange, though, and you never know what can happen. One day I got a call asking if I would try Azerbaijan and I just said, ‘okay, why not?’ When I came here the first three months were very difficult and it makes it hard to stay without my family. After this season, we will see what happens.”
When he returns to his homeland for a third time, it will be for keeps. Velicka knows he is in the twilight of his career when opportunities are generally restricted to a select few. No more of the days when he was an FBK Kaunas player bursting with drive and ambition to secure the holy grail of a move to Tynecastle.
“When Romanov bought Hearts, it was an opportunity for all players in Lithuania, not just at Kaunas,” said Velicka. “It was a good thing for football in Lithuania because everybody wanted to go to Scotland to show themselves. Players even wanted to join Kaunas because everybody knew that if you played well at Kaunas you would get a chance in Scotland with Hearts. Nobody goes to Lithuania to scout players or watch matches, so that was a good chance for all the players in Lithuania.
“I had a great time at Hearts, it was a great time in my life. I think it’s a big shame that there now money problems there. Hearts is such a big club. I can understand Romanov because he now has his basketball team, and in Lithuania basketball is huge. His team plays in the Euroleague with 50,000 supporters at every game. I think that is his priority now. I just hope everything is okay at Hearts and that somebody with big money comes in to save the club.”