SITTING together in the Edinburgh apartment complex they shared six years ago, Takis Fyssas looked Rudi Skacel in the eye and told him he was making the mistake of his life leaving Hearts.
“Stay and later you will join a bigger club than Southampton,” said Fyssas, believing his close friend could eventually grace England’s Premier League after scoring 17 goals in his first year in Scotland. Skacel opted to ignore the advice and decamped to England’s south coast to be reunited with George Burley in a £1.6 million transfer.
Fyssas knew Skacel would never recapture the fulfilment brought by being a Tynecastle idol. He even told the Czech he would be back at Hearts sooner or later. Four years later, he was proven correct. Skacel returned in September 2010 to reignite his love affair with the Hearts support and he has no intention of making the same mistake twice by leaving again. Fyssas allows himself a wry smile.
Skacel’s short-term contract expires at the end of the month but this time he is eager to extend it, at least until the summer, and continue as the official talisman of Tynecastle. He delivered arguably his finest performance in a maroon shirt against St Mirren at the weekend but admitted afterwards it may be his last outing at Tynecastle.
His hat-trick of left-footed 20-yarders and the subsequent on-field love-in was like a throwback to the 2005/06 season. Skacel’s influence at Hearts, then and now, cannot be underestimated.
“For me, it was a mistake that he left Hearts after his first season,” said Fyssas, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I told him it was not a good decision to go to Southampton but he didn’t listen to me. He was only with us for one year, he was one of the most popular players in our team and he did so well with us. We won the Scottish Cup and finished second in the league.
“Our team was so strong with him in it. He had to play one or maybe two more seasons with Hearts and do even better. Then, if he wanted to leave, he could have joined a better team maybe in the Premier League in England, not the Championship where Southampton were.
“That would have been a better move for him but he made a mistake and left.
“I told him my opinion because we are good friends and we spent lots of time together with our families that year in Edinburgh. We lived in the same building. He accepted my opinion but I did not keep telling him because it was his life and his choice.
“That Hearts team had so much spirit and he was one of the players that created all the spirit in the dressing-room. He is a very funny guy in the dressing-room, such a great guy and a great character. But he was a winner and a leader in the team. He was one of the best players in our team at Hearts.
“He scored so many goals and was one of the leaders on the pitch. I believed he had to build himself up and stay part of the team. He could create better things on the field and make better success but he took the decision to leave.
“He got a second chance with Hearts and he is playing very well at this minute. I think he realises he is so popular now and this is important. I always told him that, one day, he would come back to Hearts. He said he didn’t know how his life would pan out but look at him now. He is back at Hearts and they are a better team with Rudi playing.”
Fyssas, now technical director with Greece’s national team, enjoyed plenty of public adulation himself during two years in Scotland. The left-back played with a distinctive class and never once delivered a performance that could be termed “average”. His plaudits paled in comparison to Skacel’s, though.
“All the people love him so I think he has an advantage. He will help the team to do things in the league and try to become the best. Hearts is a big club and I love Hearts, I will never forget them. Every weekend I think about them and about Rudi. I saw the victory against Hibs and I was very happy when Rudi scored the goal.”
At the age of 32, Skacel has plenty to offer another club if he is forced to leave Hearts at the end of the month. But Fyssas believes he should be rewarded for working to re-establish himself in the hearts of supporters.
“If Rudi left I think he would find it very difficult again,” he continued. “Look at the difference. When he came back to Hearts it was not easy for him or for the people at Hearts. Everybody remembered him scoring lots of goals and creating lots of chances. They looked on him as one of the best players in the team. But it’s not easy to do all those things again when you come back.
“Rudi left Hearts and was away for many years but everybody was expecting him to come back and be the same as before. That is not easy because he was an older player and nothing can ever be the same. He is doing good things now but the people need to understand that Rudi cannot score the goals and be man of the match all the time.
“I know he is trying his hardest in training and in games. He also has to understand that the supporters love him and they are expecting many, many things from him on the pitch. That is a lot of responsibility, to always be a star in the team and stay in the hearts of the fans.”
Negotiating a new deal in football can be akin to a game of chess with every move and counter-move carefully calculated by both sides. Fyssas knows his Czech mate is in the best position of his life at Tynecastle. It can only be hoped the imminent contract talks go smoothly.