Exclusive: PAOK director Christos Karipidis speaks on Hearts fans' safety, Salonika heat and Tynecastle memories
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In five years as team director of PAOK Salonika, Christos Karipidis has never given a single media interview. Limelight isn’t his thing. However, he now feels compelled to speak out. An imminent European tie against former club Hearts floods his mind with memories of Gorgie, Greek flags and a farewell he will never forget.
Now 40, Karipidis was on the phone seconds after the final whistle on Thursday night. Just as PAOK completed a 3-0 victory over Hajduk Split in Greece, Cammy Devlin was driving home Hearts’ winner against the Norwegians of Rosenborg at the end of an enthralling evening. The scene is set for PAOK’s visit to Tynecastle Park next week in the first leg of the Europa Conference League play-off.
Karipidis knows the territory well. He spent three years as an accomplished Hearts centre-back between 2006 and 2009, although he has not been back since. His spell in Edinburgh involved peak Vladimir Romanov bampottery, planeloads of Lithuanian loanees, a Scottish Cup victory, Champions League qualifiers and some utterly bonkers decisions. He wouldn’t change it.
He left with close friend Bruno Aguiar at the end of the 2008/09 campaign to join Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus. The departure was extraordinary. “I followed Hearts since I left 14 years ago. Last night, when I knew Hearts were through to the next round and we would play them, the memories started to come,” says Karipidis in an exclusive Evening News interview.
“I had really great relationships with everybody and the fans showed me and my family great respect. Even in my personal life. My daughter was born in Salonika and she was only three months when we came to Edinburgh to stay. I will feel very happy coming back.
“My best memory was my last season. We secured third position to play in the Europa League. I decided to go to Cyprus because it is closer to Greece. The last home game was against Dundee United and we won 3-0 to finish third. When [then-Hearts manager] Csaba Laszlo took me off on 89 minutes, all the people stood up and started to sing my name. It was something amazing.
“I was so focused on the game. I saw my number, No.5, and I knew I was being changed. I was saying: ‘Why is Laszlo taking me out of the game now? We are nearly finished.’ But Csaba already had in his mind that he wanted to let fans applaud me. Then my team-mates started to come over and hug me. I was walking across and the people stood up to sing: ‘There’s only one Karipidis.’ This was something special.”
They might not be too keen to resurrect that chant next week. “No chance,” laughs Karipidis. “I will never forget the Greek flags in the stadium after the game when we said goodbye, people thanking me, giving me presents. I still have one of the Greek Hearts flags in my house. It has writing in Greek letters which says: ‘Thanks Christos.’ I will never forget these memories all my life. These fans will always have my big respect. I have to thank them, they do not need to thank me.
“I did not speak English when I came to Hearts so I pushed myself to learn. I had to communicate with my team-mates and, when I went to Cyprus, they said I could speak good English. I loved my time in Scotland.”
His current role is just as fulfilling. Karpidis is part of the PAOK fabric having come through the club’s youth system and established himself in the first team as a player in the early 2000s. Now he holds an important organisational position. He has work to do right now to help arrange travel to Edinburgh and prepare a schedule for the trip. All that can wait whilst he reminisces about Jambo life. He could probably talk Hearts all day but isn’t as willing to divulge details on PAOK. He doesn’t offer much comment on the team’s major threats, keen to avoid giving too much away.
Stifling heat on the banks of the Aegean Sea will be one of Hearts’ greatest obstacles in the return leg on August 31. As will the hostile atmosphere inside PAOK’s 28,700-capacity Toumba Stadium. “Thessaloniki is 35 degrees at the moment. It will be difficult,” explains Karipidis. “When you live in Scotland, this is completely different. We have an amazing atmosphere in our stadium. It is very hot. Of course it is tough for the opponents, but we have a very nice city.”
The Salonika fans have built a reputation for typical southern-Mediterranean antics. Gate 4 are the club’s ultras group who enjoy making visiting teams quiver: Flares, fires, passion, aggression, intimidation, it’s all there and more. Karipidis moved to reassure Hearts supporters planning to make the journey that they will be looked after. “It will be safe to travel here, we don’t have any problems. Our hospitality will be very nice to them. The atmosphere in the stadium is from the fans supporting our team. This is our strong point. They create a great environment for our players. It does not matter about the opponents.
“I am involved in the organisation. I am at training every day with the players, coaches and I am at the games. It is 24 hours a day. I enjoy my job and this is a good club, so this game is perfect for me.”