Hearts fans will miss Paulo Sergio’s style

Paulo Sergio holds the Scottish Cup aloft. Picture: Steve Welsh
Paulo Sergio holds the Scottish Cup aloft. Picture: Steve Welsh
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KC AND the Sunshine Band is off the playlist at Tynecastle. The CD is firmly back in the drawer, for the song befits only one man and he won’t be appearing at the famous old stadium any time soon. Paulo Sergio has gone, leaving a hollow feeling of disappointment for the Hearts fans who adored him.

He departs a legend following the finest moment of his managerial career just 20 days ago, the emphatic Scottish Cup triumph over Hibs at Hampden Park.

Paulo Sergio is hailed by his players. Picture: Steve Welsh

Paulo Sergio is hailed by his players. Picture: Steve Welsh

Going from such an emotional high to the low of severing ties with the club is as difficult for Sergio to accept as it is his disciples. However, there is much to be said for Hearts’ stance on this matter.

By refusing to budge with their contract offer, the board prioritised financial pragmatism over anything else. Directors are determined not to exceed specified budgets for a new management team and will not bow to the wants of one individual.

After the crass negligence of paying exorbitant sums to players like Mirsad Beslija, Mauricio Pinilla and David Obua, it is a lesson well learned. And an approach worth applauding.

The proposal made to Sergio for next season included a significant wage cut with hefty performance-related bonuses. He could justifiably expect a better offer having just won the Scottish Cup and secured a place in the Europa League’s final qualifying round, yet Hearts stuck rigidly to their guns and, therefore, a parting of the ways was always the most likely result.

Net debt at Tynecastle reduced from £36million to £24m in the latest set of annual accounts and finances are the club main priority. High earning players have left and will be replaced, largely, by graduates of the Riccarton youth academy.

Some would argue an austere outlook is long overdue. Even the ultra-popular Sergio has no right to command money Hearts cannot afford. So he leaves a legacy difficult to better given his last match in charge was a thumping 5-1 victory against Hibs in the cup final.

That success, and indeed an imperious record against Edinburgh’s other team throughout his season in charge, ensures his name is now indelible from club folklore.

These were not his only achievements because he also had a positive influence on emerging young players. It was Sergio who established Scott Robinson as a teenage first-team regular. He also handed debuts to other proteges Fraser Mullen, Mark Ridgers and Denis Prychynenko. Jason Holt got his first start and responded with a goal against St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park in March.

The dignity and diligence shown by the Portuguese when dealing with an unsettled squad throughout last winter further endeared him to Hearts supporters. When wages weren’t paid and players lodged an official complaint to the Scottish Premier League, Sergio fought to maintain unity within the dressing room.

A siege mentality was adopted and, ultimately, it bore fruit out on the pitch to drive Hearts to their first trophy in six years.

Sergio will be remembered forever for that cup run. League results during his tenure were unpredictable, although his record is comparable with any Hearts manager in recent years.

Out of 36 league games in charge, he won 15, drew six and lost 15, giving him a win ratio of 41 per cent. Overall Sergio won 44 per cent of matches in all competitions with Hearts, which betters the ratios of Jim Jefferies, Csaba Laszlo, Stephen Frail and Anatoly Korobochka. You must go back to the Valdas Ivanauskas era to find a coach with a higher win percentage.

Sergio’s style of football did not always attract praise and he frequently changed formation through to February this year. It was then that he settled on a 4-1-3-2 format, which, with moderate tinkering, served Hearts well through to their unforgettable season climax.

For a continental manager, he was strangely happy to allow defenders to send aerial balls forward even if Stephen Elliott was leading the forward line. Centre-backs Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas would split whenever their goalkeeper had the ball. One or the other would then receive it and deliver it towards either the inside-right or inside-left channel.

Initially, Sergio seemed to want the ball kept on the ground and ball retention seemed a priority. But perhaps he realised that mindset is not as easy to instil in Scotland as it is in Portugal. He took time to adapt, but changed tactics to suit his personnel, as any intelligent coach must be able to do when necessary.

On that subject, it should not be forgotten that he did not recruit any of his own players during nine months in charge of Hearts. Sergio had plenty names to offer, but none of his suggestions materialised and he felt slightly let down by that.

Throughout recent conversations with him, it was clear he thought the sense of achievement brought by winning the Scottish Cup was magnified because of the problems during the campaign – from wage delays to lack of signings to losing key players.

Sergio did not complain: he simply set about replacing them as best he could with what was available. Hearts did not manage to bring in anyone he asked for, yet he still led the club to the most memorable climax to a campaign in modern times.

It wasn’t enough to make them burst their budget to keep him. Hearts are now seeking the tenth manager of Vladimir Romanov’s reign. Sergio remains an iconic figure, but one who couldn’t be retained on his last season’s salary. Money matters at Tynecastle and, finally, Hearts are now looking after Hearts.