As the knee of Rangers midfielder Scott Arfield came sliding towards his face, Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal was praying for his safety.
Arfield’s reckless challenge during Sunday’s tempestuous affair at Tynecastle Park didn’t injure the Czech, however bad experience of opponents charging in wantonly left him fearing the worst.
Zlamal produced two successive saves on 72 minutes to stop Rangers’ Daniel Candeias and Alfredo Morelos increasing their team’s 2-1 lead. As the keeper lay grounded on his chest after the second stop, body behind the goal-line and hands outstretched clutching the ball, Arfield lunged in.
He collided with Zlamal’s head but thankfully caused no serious damage and was instantly red-carded by referee Bobby Madden. Several Hearts players surrounded the Canadian internationalist to complain about his disregard for their goalkeeper’s wellbeing.
Zlamal reacted angrily for a moment before being calmed down by colleagues. Inside, he was predominantly relieved to have escaped unharmed.
“I kept the ball and everybody could see I had the ball. He tackled from five yards, he slid from five yards away,” Zlamal, nicknamed ‘Bobby’, told the Evening News. “I think it was a red card because sometimes the goalkeeper has to be protected, especially when we have the ball.
“I saw him coming but I couldn’t bring the ball in to my body because, if I do that, it’s a goal. My body was behind the line so I just kept the ball in front of me and I prayed. I was lucky that nothing happened to me because I have a bad experience in this situation.
“Many years ago, I was in the same position and I was injured in the challenge. I got a ligament injury. The ball was between us, I kicked it and the player finished me after the ball had gone. I ended up with a knee injury.
“I think it’s very bad. If somebody sees the goalkeeper has the ball, don’t do it. Sometimes this happens in football but the player has to be given a red card.
“The referee made a good decision and after that Rangers had to play with ten players. I believed we would win at that point, or we would score to get a draw. I felt the red card could help us but it did not happen.”
Hearts succumbed to their fifth defeat in six games as a frustrating sequence of form spilled into the final month of the year. Their goalkeeper hasn’t gone without criticism during that period, particularly after St Mirren’s Adam Hammill scored against him from 35 yards. However, he was in excellent form on Sunday and prevented Rangers enjoying a more comfortable win in Edinburgh.
The 33-year-old made impressive saves to thwart Gareth McAuley, Ovie Ejaria, Candeias and Morelos and was understandably upset finishing on the losing side. Not least because the game’s decisive goal, scored by Morelos, came from a free-kick at which three Rangers players were clearly offside. The lack of quality officiating remains a source of much frustration within the Hearts camp.
“It’s totally true. We were so unlucky and now this period is very hard for us,” explained Zlamal. “When we score it is offside, and when Rangers score it is offside but the referee says ‘goal’. It’s unfortunate but we have to keep going. We have to focus on the next games and stay positive but it’s very hard. I hope things will turn back to good times soon.”
Recent disappointments fall on the back of a sumptuous start to the season by Craig Levein’s side. That is perhaps making this run all the more difficult for players and staff to digest as they prepare to meet St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park tomorrow evening.
Zlamal is at least able to see the bigger picture. He left Fastav Zlin in Czech Republic to realise his dream of playing British football during the summer. He is the established first-choice goalkeeper at Hearts and is simply desperate to bring the club’s recent disappointing run to an end as soon as possible.
“I’m still happy here. I’m very happy that I can be here playing for Hearts, but just now it is a hard period,” he said. “There are two sides. I am happy being here but we are so unlucky right now. If we work hard and win again, I hope the mood in the dressing room and everywhere else will be better.
“We will not be up all the time but we have to break up these negative things and this bad luck. The only way is to be positive, work hard and believe we will win other games.
“At the beginning of the season, sometimes we were lucky. Now we are unlucky. That’s football but we must keep giving our best.”
He is in no mood to relax, for he knows that will simply bring more problems on a personal note. The Republic of Ireland international goalkeeper Colin Doyle is waiting patiently in the background for a first-team opportunity having joined Hearts as back-up to Zlamal in July.
The man in possession of the gloves welcomes the rivalry, which he insisted is good-natured. He is content to let Levein make the decision on who keeps goal from one week to the next. So far, that choice has been entirely in Zlamal’s favour.
“There is competition but I always do my best. We lost some games but it’s up to the gaffer who plays,” he said, with a shrug of the shoulder.
“I am ready. Colin is a very good goalkeeper and a good guy. We are friends, so it’s a good situation to be in. I like to have competition and I think it is good for the team to be in this position.”