THERE is a little corner of Lithuania that will remain forever maroon. No, not the Ukio Bankas Investment Group headquarters or Vladimir Romanov’s luxury abode, but the home of Valdas Ivanauskas – the last man to manage a Scottish Cup-winning Hearts side. His memories of 2006 will never fade, nor will his gratitude to Romanov wane.
Lifting the Cup helped Ivanauskas secure a job he still considers something of a holy grail in football management. Being head coach of Hearts was his greatest honour. Even greater than coaching his own country. This interview is littered with interludes thanking Romanov for the opportunity he gave the big Lithuanian whom no-one had really heard about, and were deeply suspicious of, back in 2006.
Ivanauskas was merely interim head coach six years ago when he guided Hearts to a place in the Champions League qualifying rounds and to Scottish Cup success against Gretna. A few weeks after the final, Romanov appointed him on a permanent basis at the age of 39. For once, the often sullen Ivanauskas produced a warm smile.
It was June 30, 2006, when he was formally unveiled at Tynecastle. Hearts were leaving for their second pre-season training camp in Austria just three days later as preparations for a Champions League qualifier with Siroki Brijeg intensified. Almost instantly, Ivanauskas was back to the pressure and stress which came with working for the insatiable Romanov, who had gone through three managers in just over a year since becoming Hearts’ majority shareholder. He relished the challenge, even if it did overwhelm him at times. “I must say that Mr Romanov gave me the biggest chances of my managerial career,” Ivanauskas told the Evening News. “I understand how big a risk he took making me manager of Heart of Midlothian and I can only say ‘thank you’ to him. Yes, it’s not easy working with him. Before I came to Scotland I had been working with him for three years at Kaunas and also with the Lithuanian national team. We phoned each other all the time. He is a very hard man.
“Mr Romanov understood how important the Hearts job was for my future. We had very professional moments and he knew how hard I was working. We got the Champions League place by beating Aberdeen, and after that the situation was much better for my job. Privately, I knew the Cup final was also very important.
“We won the Cup and then after the holidays we had three weeks before the first training camp in France. I was talking every day with Mr Romanov and he was asking me about taking the job permanently. I knew it would not be easy. The Champions League was a huge chance for the club.
“I knew it was a risk, the same way it was a risk for me to come to Hearts. I talked with Mr Romanov for a long time and I said I wanted to take this risk.
“I knew Paul Hartley could leave and Rudi Skacel would be sold, so it was difficult. We needed players for the Champions League. After the holiday, Romanov said to me I was to be the head coach and I would take the team for the training camp in France.
“The players were very happy when we went to France and it was a big chance for me. I understood how important that season was but it was all good emotions. I knew the risks and how important everything was to the club, to the players and to myself. If you are the manager, you must think not just about the team and the players. You must think about other teams and other people you work with. It was more responsibility. But even when I was the assistant coach, I was very proud to be at Hearts.” Ivanauskas’ rise to prominence completed a remarkable year in Scotland as he went from nobody to cult hero. He first arrived to run the rule over Hearts at Romanov’s request in April 2005, taking in a 2-2 draw with Hibs at Easter Road whilst John Robertson was still in charge. “Who? Never heard of him,” said Robbo when asked at the time if he was aware of Ivanauskas’ presence in the directors’ box.
Just over 12 months later, after working under both George Burley and Graham Rix, the Lithuanian had masterminded Hearts’ 4-0 demolition of Hibs in the Scottish Cup semi-final, lifted the trophy and secured a Champions League place. All whilst being nothing more than a caretaker. Fans were almost literally bowing at his feet. “We’ve got Ivan-Ivan-Ivan-Ivanauskas on the bench, on the bench,” chanted one Jambo in Windischgarsten during the summer tour of Austria. Ivanauskas had become a part of Tynecastle folklore.
“The supporters in Scotland understand football, they understand their club,” he continued. “I remember the semi-final against Hibs. I think that was the best game of the whole season. Paul Hartley scored a hat-trick but the whole team was magnificent. It was a very good game and a huge performance from the players.
“The final was a huge day for the club and me. We had a big chance to win this trophy but a final is a final. It was a special day and after this final I understood how important the Cup was for Hearts supporters. I remember the details of the game very well and it was not easy but it finished as the biggest day in my managerial career.
“Hearts were favourites because Gretna was a small team. We could only lose this game for ourselves. I remember every minute, every second, of the Cup final. I remember the training camp before the Cup final. I will never forget.
“Taking second place in the SPL and getting into the Champions League was most important to me, and after the game against Aberdeen I was so happy. But the Cup final meant so much to so many other people. I remember the next day very well. I remember thousands and thousands of supporters all over the city in Edinburgh. It was unbelievable. It was the biggest result in my managerial career. It helped me understand that, in Great Britain, the national cup is a big tournament.
“It was a big time when I was at Hearts and we had a very strong team if you remember how many international players were in the squad. It’s hard working with some difficult players from so many other countries. It was a very big experience for me but it was the best time and the best results I have had as a coach. Hearts is my team now.”
Ivanauskas does not need told about the magnitude of Saturday’s all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final. He remembers the ecstasy created by beating Hibs in the semi, which will only be magnified for whoever wins this time. There is only one game this weekend which, to Ivanauskas, might be considered bigger.
“I have had a few calls from Germany and, if it’s possible, I will go to the Champions League final in Munich,” he said, underlining the contacts he still has from playing days in the Bundesliga. “That will mean I cannot come to Scotland but I hope my team wins this final for the supporters.”
When he says “my team”, there is no need to ask for clarification.