Uncompromising and at times unorthodox, Marius Zaliukas has not always endeared himself to observers of Scottish football.
However, he has made a good stab at turning the tide of opinion amongst Hearts fans if the homage to the central defender after his matchwinning display against St Johnstone earlier this week is a measure of public feeling. So the Lithuanian centre back is finding favour, and his form, just when it may matter most to Hearts, who travel to Motherwell tomorrow in a match the player describes as a “six-pointer”.
The Jambos skipper was imperious in defence in Perth and, as he proved latterly, equally effective in attack, thwarting the threat of the in-form Saints forward pair of Cillian Sheridan and Francisco Sandaza before loping towards the opposite end of the pitch in extra time to bundle the ball in.
“It’s just a ball hit me and I score,” Zaliukas told the Evening News. “Obviously, when we get a good result, everyone is pleased.”
It seemed in Perth that Zaliukas had found his feet – without reference to the post-match jig he performed to the songs of the Hearts fans – as well as an assuredness that has proved elusive and a security that perhaps stems from the trust placed in him by Paulo Sergio and, before the Portuguese manager, Jim Jefferies, who appointed him skipper after the departure of Michael Stewart in summer 2010.
“Being captain feels good. I’m almost six years over here. I’m pleased with what’s happening right now and I hope I’m doing a good job for everyone.
Zaliukas initially arrived as a raw 22-year-old on loan from FBK Kaunas in August 2006. From the shy new arrival who stuck close to his fellow Lithuanians in and around the club, he has blossomed into a more extroverted physical force and a mainstay of the Hearts defence. He will turn 29 at the end of next season, when his Hearts contract is due to expire. Having spent the vast proportion of his 20s at Tynecastle, will ambition drive the defender onto a new challenge?
“Obviously now, I’m not thinking about that. A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking. But, now that’s passed and I’m just focussing on my job here.
“There was quite a lot of rumours but nothing was realised. I think everyone wants to go to as high a level as possible.”
What would give the greatest pleasure to the Scottish Cup saviour of midweek, however, is becoming the third Hearts captain in 15 years to lead his club to Hampden glory.
“Oh! That would be brilliant. I think this would be the top of my career, to win a trophy like this,” he said. “In the CIS Insurance Cup [in defeat to Ayr United], we were devastated, but a couple of days ago [after the win at St Johnstone] we were happy.”
Tomorrow, though, it’s back to league business and onward to Motherwell’s Fir Park. Hearts have been set the task of halving the six-point gap that separates them from their third-placed hosts.
Zaliukas admits that the fact second-placed Rangers have been deducted ten league points for going into administration but still remain 15 ahead of Hearts is a reflection of a below-par showing by the Jambos during the course of the current campaign.
“Fifteen points is still a lot of points,” he said. “Still, Rangers are not a bad team and will not waste those 15 points. We want to do our jobs as well as we can and finish as high as possible.
“In the league, probably everyone expected more, but it’s still a very tight table and every game is important.
“We’re going to go to Motherwell to win the game. We can say it’s a six-pointer. We want to put pressure on them, win through there, and keep going.”
Sergio has made seven changes (at least two per game) to his starting line-up during the recent sequence of four games in ten days, which indicates a willingness by the Hearts boss to freely utilise players on the fringes of the first team. Although such a policy is implemented at the cost of a settled team, Sergio’s adoption of a rotation system is down to the manager’s concerns of player burnout.
Hearts have not fielded the same starting line-up in successive matches since a pair of home wins over Dunfermline and Motherwell prior to Christmas.
While Hearts can be proud of their record of just two losses in their last 11 games in all competitions, the club has failed to win any of their previous six matches inside 90 minutes, whereas Motherwell have remained unbeaten in their last five contests.
The winning goal by Zaliukas deep into extra time at St Johnstone on Tuesday led the Jambos to the cup quarter-finals and their first win since defeating St Mirren 5-2 in mid-January.
By close of play at McDiarmid Park, Hearts had completed four games – including one bout of extra time – in ten days. Hearts players only had three days to recover from the “hardest game of the season”, as Zaliukas described it, but, with third place up for grabs, adrenalin is likely to nullify any lingering ill-effects that the visitors may be carrying from their midweek exertions.
A playful Zaliukas has already entered into mind games – of a sort – with tomorrow’s opponents, feigning ignorance when asked about the prospect of going head-to-head with one of the SPL’s in-form strikers, the Lanarkshire side’s Henrik Ojamaa. “Who?” said Zaliukas. “We’ll introduce ourselves, I’m sure.”
His humour is unlikely to play on the mind of the Estonian striker, but Zaliukas’ on-field form – and that of his team mates – will be the determining factor in Hearts’ quest to close the gap with Motherwell tomorrow.