VLADIMIR ROMANOV’S stance on Marian Kello will prompt much debate. What cannot be questioned is that Hearts will reward players who show loyalty, as Jamie MacDonald is already discovering.
The Tynecastle hierarchy stand accused of cutting off their nose to spite their face by freezing their first-choice goalkeeper out of first-team affairs. It is a charge they previously faced in the cases of Marius Zaliukas, Jose Goncalves and Andy Webster. Romanov and his directors are undeterred, however.
Regardless of whether results may suffer in the pursuit of European football for next season – and there is no suggestion they will with the able-bodied MacDonald to replace Kello – Hearts will not play players who don’t commit themselves to the club. That transpired on Sunday when MacDonald replaced Kello for the William Hill Scottish Cup tie with St Johnstone.
Kello held talks over extending his stay at Tynecastle but is keen to continue his career in England. He is in discussions about a pre-contract agreement with an unnamed club south of the Border. That is why he refused a transfer deadline-day move to Austria Vienna last week, which would have secured Hearts a reasonable sum for a goalkeeper out of contract in four months. Romanov was rather miffed, to say the least.
The Slovakian is looking after himself, which he is correct to do under the circumstances. He is 29 years old and realises his next move could, potentially, be his last big one. Wherever he decides to go must be the correct destination, for there is no room for error.
He is eager to sample football in one of the major European countries and feels England would best serve the peak years of his career. Periods in his native Slovakia, Lithuania and particularly Scotland helped him become an internationalist but he now hankers after more progress.
He has been an excellent servant to Hearts, retaining his dignity through last season’s farcical episode when he was frozen out amid suggestions Romanov was unhappy with his performances. Jim Jefferies was ordered not to play him, now Paulo Sergio has bowed to similar pressure from his paymaster.
Hearts, like Kello, are servicing their own needs, and that means MacDonald and 21-year-old Mark Ridgers assuming first-team goalkeeping duties from the Slovakian. Both recently signed new contracts which tie them to Tynecastle until 2014, with options of further extensions thereafter.
In the opinion of Romanov and his associates, MacDonald and Ridgers are in for the long haul. Kello is not, therefore he has no right to play. It is a very black-and-white way of looking at things but it is nonetheless a clear statement to all that, as far as Romanov is concerned, you are either with him or you aren’t.
“Of course, the owners are looking for players who are loyal to the club,” said Janos Balogh, the third choice goalkeeper at Hearts until he severed ties in December. “With Marian, I can understand him. He played well for Hearts and he can probably play at a higher level. He wants to step up and this is football.
“It’s not like 40 years ago when players played for one team their whole life and only played for happiness. The world has changed and footballers have changed as well. If you can get more money somewhere else or play in a better league, then probably you are going to go. You aren’t going to stay.
“Marian being left out is strange but it’s happened before, not just at Hearts but other clubs as well. It’s not my business, I don’t know whose decision it was. For Marian it’s going to be very frustrating, but in another way it’s good for Jamie. I like both of them so I hope for the best for them.
“If I was still there, it probably wouldn’t be a chance for me to play because I didn’t want to sign [a new contract] either. I was frustrated at not playing. If I stayed and signed, maybe I could play now. But I’m quite happy because I have a lot of good memories of Hearts.”
For MacDonald, the thought of finally establishing himself as first-choice goalkeeper will warm the cockles. “I was training with Jamie for three-and-a-half years and he is a really good goalkeeper,” continued Balogh, speaking from his home in Hungary where he is still searching for a club. “He is going to be fine because he is good enough to play for Hearts. Later, when more young players come through, he can be a leader for them.
“Jamie is from Scotland and he grew up there all his life. I can understand why he wants to stay there. His family and friends are there so it was a good decision from him to sign his contract and stay with Hearts.”
MacDonald has spent almost a decade at Tynecastle playing second fiddle to some excellent goalkeepers, plus some embarrassing ones, and endured his own frustration as a result. The chance to prove his credentials over a sustained period of time will make the wait feel worthwhile.
He is now 25 and has been an understudy to seemingly every Hearts keeper throughout the last ten years. The excellent Craig Gordon was never going to be usurped as No.1, then came the veteran Steve Banks, followed by Balogh and Kello.
There was even a short time late in 2007 when MacDonald was left playing second fiddle whilst Eduardas Kurskis resembled a toddler chasing a balloon around the six-yard box at Ibrox. Thankfully, Kello arrived the following year and, after initially taking time to settle into Scottish football, the Slovakian has been in commanding form for the past two seasons.
Whether he dons the Hearts goalkeeping shirt again remains to be seen. Club officials believe that, unless Kello changes his stance, he is unlikely to be seen swinging on the Tynecastle crossbar again.