Sergio is a safe port in a storm for Hearts

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Anthony Brown believes Paulo Sergio is doing an admirable job of guiding Hearts through troubled waters

PAULO SERGIO has been manager of Hearts for almost five months, but trying to decipher whether or not he’s actually been a successful appointment remains a tricky assignment. Some observers would tell you he’s simply not got the best out of the squad available to him, while others are more sympathetic to the Portuguese in light of the fact he needed time to acclimatise to the unique demands of Scottish football and is effectively being asked to operate with both hands tied behind his back and, at times, a gag across his mouth. Here, we take a look at the main talking points surrounding his reign so far . .

Team selection

Rarely do Sergio’s team selections ever come close to matching with the consensus in the stands and this has perhaps been the biggest bone of contention among the manager’s critics. Of course, this does not mean Sergio is wrong.

These differing views between stands and dugout simply boil down to the fact that the manager has come from a far more cultured footballing background in Portugal and will be looking for different qualities in his players to those demanded by an audience who have been brought up on a diet of physical, high-tempo Scottish football. Scottish football followers demand a target man such as John Sutton, while the Portuguese purist seems to prefer a more mobile and technical player such as Stephen Elliott or Ryan Stevenson to lead the line. Likewise, in terms of wide players, many Hearts fans want the pace and directness of Andrew Driver, while Sergio has a penchant for more fleet-footed players such as David Templeton, Arvydas Novikovas and Mehdi Taouil.

Technique over tempo is the preference of Sergio, a man for whom possession of the ball is king. Many supporters question why players like Adrian Mrowiec and David Obua were being picked ahead of bright young things such as Scott Robinson, but, although these two are perhaps not the easiest on the eye, they both possess game intelligence, discipline and diligence, qualities which are often more appreciated by their team-mates than those in the stands. Having said that, the manager is discovering that certain factors are required for Scottish football and has shown an admirable adaptability. Over the past few months, he has introduced players like Eggert Jonsson, Ryan McGowan [pictured] and Robinson, who were all marginalised in the early part of his reign, while the likes of Rudi Skacel and Sutton have had brief runs in the side of late. The manager also insists that Driver would have got his chance sooner or later had he not handed in a transfer request.

One of the main problems Sergio has is that he has been left with a squad which is too big. In essence, he has too many people to try and please and he can’t keep them all happy. This also means that, whenever the team fails to perform, fans will always be able to pick out about half-a-dozen other players who they feel should have been in the side. In short, Sergio’s starting XI, with the exception of the generally consistent defence, has evolved over the past few months as he has gradually got to grips with the strengths and weaknesses of his players as well as the requirements of Scottish football.

There may be one or two players the crowd would rather see more of, or less of, but that is the case at every club in the world.

Andy Driver transfer request

There is no escaping the fact the wage issue has been a massive hindrance to the team’s progress under Sergio. Hearts were just beginning to build up a head of steam with back-to-back wins over Celtic and Dunfermline when the full magnitude of the payment issues became apparent in late October. Since Andrew Driver revealed the extent of the players’ concerns on the eve of the home match against Rangers, it is no coincidence that they have won only two of their eight matches, both against sides in the SPL’s bottom three. The manager demonstrated his leadership abilities and the respect he commands when he persuaded his players not to submit a complaint to the SPL when their October wages were overdue – they were paid almost instantly. Given the off-field upheaval, it would be folly to blame Sergio in any way for the slump over the past two months. He has had to work hard to ensure unrest is kept to a minimum and that a semblance of team spirit is maintained throughout a period when players are more concerned about when their next pay cheque will arrive rather than who they play next. He deserves nothing but credit for keeping the team motivated enough to go to Celtic Park and compete and then follow that up with a dominant win over Dunfermline.

Spats with officialdom

This is where the manager has let himself down most. Perhaps fuelled by the antipathy of Vladimir Romanov towards the SFA, Sergio launched an ill-advised rant against Iain Brines in the aftermath of the League Cup defeat at Ayr and subsequently received a warning. However, while this unsavoury and needless saga was rumbling on, he then exacerbated matters by being sent to the stand for a display of petulance against Kilmarnock. As a result, when his team have needed him most amid the off-field chaos, Sergio has spent the past five games in the stand rather than the dugout. That said, he acknowledged the error of his ways by admitting: “I have learned my lesson.” If indeed this proves to be the case, then that goes down as a feather in his cap.

Passion

While spats with officials may prove he cares, evidence of his passion can probably be best derived from the fact he has simply remained at Hearts despite the obvious hindrances. His own reputation is in danger of taking a battering if Hearts unravel further in the new year, but he has so far remained loyal to the club that took a chance on him in August. He loves working with the squad and, with the exception of those frustrated by their lack of action, the players have a good rapport with him. While his KC and the Sunshine band song hasn’t been aired as often in recent months as a result of the general depression at the club, Sergio has generally forged a strong bond with the supporters and showed a nice touch when he donned a maroon cardigan in September, and then said: “It’s the colour of our club.” Whatever happens, Sergio is unlikely to go down through a lack of passion for the cause.

Lack of signings

The manager has not been able to bring in any players of his own, even though he arrived almost a full month before the last transfer deadline in August. Given the off-field woes, he is likely to have his squad further diminished next month without any replenishment. He is effectively working with Jim Jefferies’ squad, players who were signed with Jefferies’ blueprint in mind rather than Sergio’s. Managers always say they need at least two transfer windows before they can be judged, yet Sergio has never once used his lack of transfer activity as an excuse. Two years ago, Csaba Laszlo, who had Hearts in a similar position in the league at this stage in 2009/10 to where they are now, was complaining incessantly about the fact he was unable to sign the players he required. Sergio, to his credit, has gone quietly about his business without complaint.

Late wages

There is no escaping the fact the wage issue has been a massive hindrance to the team’s progress under Sergio. Hearts were just beginning to build up a head of steam with back-to-back wins over Celtic and Dunfermline when the full magnitude of the payment issues became apparent in late October. Since Andrew Driver revealed the extent of the players’ concerns on the eve of the home match against Rangers, it is no coincidence that they have won only two of their eight matches, both against sides in the SPL’s bottom three. The manager demonstrated his leadership abilities and the respect he commands when he persuaded his players not to submit a complaint to the SPL when their October wages were overdue – they were paid almost instantly. Given the off-field upheaval, it would be folly to blame Sergio in any way for the slump over the past two months. He has had to work hard to ensure unrest is kept to a minimum and that a semblance of team spirit is maintained throughout a period when players are more concerned about when their next pay cheque will arrive rather than who they play next. He deserves nothing but credit for keeping the team motivated enough to go to Celtic Park and compete and then follow that up with a dominant win over Dunfermline.