Their respective managerial careers have adopted very different trajectories since Paulo Sergio was preferred to André Villas-Boas for the top job at Sporting Lisbon a couple of years ago.
The now-Hearts boss will be grateful for praise from a man almost ten years his junior and who is these days celebrated as one of the most promising talents among the world’s football coaches.
Sergio’s public show of stoic perseverance and recent impressive results, achieved in the face of the turmoil of unpaid players’ wages and planned mass cutbacks at the Capital club, have not gone unnoticed among keen observers of Scottish football, of which his compatriot Villas-Boas is one.
The Chelsea manager yesterday celebrated the progress made by his countryman, saying the delay in wages at Hearts and the “structural problems” pervading Tynecastle made the Jambos’ Sergio-led surge to within touching distance of third place in the SPL all the more remarkable.
“It’s good for Paulo to get the results,” said Villas-Boas, who was at Hampden Park alongside former World Cup winning Italian manager Marcello Lippi, to conduct the draw for the William Hill Scottish Cup Fifth Round. “The situation at Hearts is a very difficult one to live with. Paulo has managed to get the results within this turmoil that is happening at the club – the fact the players don’t get paid and all the structural problems he faces. But, I think you have to praise somebody who is faced with these difficulties.
“Of course, in society, there are other problems and other issues that are much more important than football, but anybody who dedicates himself to a job 100 per cent likes to be rewarded for doing that job properly and I’m sure Hearts can work the situation out and find a solution to help Paulo to continue to do a good job.”
It is not surprising that Villas-Boas keeps tabs on his compatriot given it appears he speaks knowledgeably on most things football. The 34-year-old’s curiosity of Sergio’s form is also fuelled by the fact that, during last season and the one previous, the two were regular rivals in Portugal’s Primeira Liga.
The similarities between the pair are perhaps not as striking as those that link Villas-Boas with Jose Mourinho, his former mentor and ex-colleague at Porto, Inter and Chelsea. However, the current incumbents of the manager’s position at Stamford Bridge and Tynecastle have much in common, aside from their two concurrent seasons in the Portuguese top flight. They used to go head-to-head in clashes between Villas-Boas’s two clubs, Academica and Porto, and Sergio’s Vitória Guimarães and Sporting Lisbon. Now, both are now making their mark in British football.
Following the sacking of Sporting Lisbon boss Carlos Carvalhal almost two years ago, Villas-Boas and Paulo Sergio both entered the frame for the job within the green half of football-mad Lisbon. Although Sergio won the race to be appointed boss at Estádio José Alvalade, Villas-Boas, who was a couple of months later appointed manager of his own hometown team, Porto, was generous in praise of his counterpart.
“I believe him to be a great leader, a good leader of men, competent, and a man of great character,” said Villas-Boas of Sergio in April 2010. It is likely Sergio, in common with most of the football world until August last year, was unaware that Vladimir Romanov shared a similar admiration of his talents.
Lured to Scotland by the Russian-born Lithuanian, Sergio’s passage to these shores was made after five full months out of work in his native land. For the 43-year-old, a relatively young manager, the chance to take over at a top-flight British club at a time when its owner still retained an infectious ambition was an offer difficult to turn down. A healthy salary and budget for player wages, both of which only the Old Firm could better, may have been the clincher.
By contrast, Villas-Boas dipped into his own pocket to fund his own football education in Scotland aged just 17. When at Porto, he was persuaded by then-coach Mourinho and the late, great manager Sir Bobby Robson that enrolling on the Scottish FA course would be money well spent.
“I had to pay my own way here. The SFA course was a two-week course and the prices were always very competitive!” joked Villas-Boas yesterday.
On the face of it, Villas-Boas’s impressions of Scotland – those which stand as the reasons for his continuous return to this country to complete a series of coaching qualifications – differ greatly from how the observer of Scottish football may imagine Sergio’s description of his experiences around Riccarton and Gorgie. The Chelsea boss highlights the freedom of expression he encountered here; for his Hearts counterpart, on the other hand, it’s vital to know when to keep schtum.
“The way you manage is always your ideas,” said Villas-Boas. “The most important thing for me is that you’re able to show and express your ideas and share it with other people. I think this is what made a difference with the other coaching courses I took in different countries, and that’s why I always felt this one was higher.
“You get the opportunity to put your ideas into practice and for people to accept it, for people to recommend what you should do to improve. This is why I kept coming back.”
Transparency and communication – certainly with those outside Tynecastle – may not have been a strong point of Hearts for the majority of Sergio’s time at the club since the Portuguese was appointed manager at the start of August last year, particularly after the club imposed a media blackout just two months into his reign. Those familiar with how the club’s major shareholder operates are now only too aware of the mixed and cryptic messages that can emanate from Tynecastle. But, Sergio has, publicly at least, appeared relatively unencumbered by the lack of clarity surrounding fiscal matters and the bizarre rants from Romanov. He seems, for the moment, content with the task of helping turn Hearts around, while Villas-Boas attempts to do the same at Chelsea.
Villas-Boas, less than seven months after leaving his homeland, is already under pressure to generate better results in England. At Porto, he won the treble of league, cup and Europa League in his one and only season, offering as the reason for leaving Estadio do Dragão the valid assessment that he could barely better his achievements.
Villas-Boas’s compatriot and former rival, meanwhile, continues to steer Hearts up the SPL table with the realistic target of a third-place finish, which would represent the highest placing reasonably attainable for a Jambos boss in the current climate. Fans of the Tynecastle club will hope Sergio, who has already proven impermeable to off-field disarray, has the vision and drive to lead them into a brave new world.