Sunday’s showdown at Stark’s Park is almost certain to represent the last time Rudi Skacel, one of the biggest names in the club’s history, will play a competitive game in front of the Hearts support. Given the nature of the Czech’s decorated history with the Tynecastle club, it is fitting that this moment is set to come in a Scottish Cup tie.
He may now be wearing the dark blue of Raith Rovers – and, if recent weeks are anything to go be, is likely only to play a cameo role at best – but the 37-year-old is guaranteed an emotional show of appreciation from 3000 travelling Hearts fans eager to say farewell to a man who has played a significant part in lighting up their lives over the last 12 years.
Approaching his 38th birthday and likely to retire from professional football at the end of this season, it can be said with confidence that the last match of Skacel’s magical alliance with the Hearts will go down as the 2012 Scottish Cup final, when he scored two goals in a 5-1 demolition of city rivals Hibs. In total, over two stints in Gorgie – which encompassed just three seasons – he scored 48 goals, won two Scottish Cups and was the talisman of teams that finished second (in 2005/06) and third (in 2010/11) in the top division.
Since kicking his final ball for Hearts at Hampden almost five years ago, Skacel has played against them twice, for Dundee United in 2012/13. Although he is fully focused on trying to do his best for Raith Rovers on Sunday, he admits that there is a degree of awkwardness involved when his job means having to end the Scottish Cup dreams of a support who idolise him and helped “give him super powers”.
“Will it be emotional for me? It will be different because it is Hearts,” he admitted. “It will be strange to play against ‘my’ Hearts. It is 90 minutes playing against supporters who always got behind me. It’s a special game, I won’t lie. It could be my last against them. I don’t have anything special planned [for the fans], honestly. It’s too early. I don’t even know if I will play.”
Asked if he would celebrate if he scored for Raith against Hearts on Sunday, he laughed: “No comment. Ask me again after the game.”
Skacel cherishes his bond with the Hearts fans, who took to him instantly in 2005 and will forever view him as one of the greatest figures in their club’s history. “I am proud that I have a special relationship with the Hearts fans,” he said. “These three seasons were great for the club. I was top scorer each year, we won two Scottish Cups and it was amazing. I am pleased about that.”
Skacel’s “special” relationship with the Hearts supporters was established when he scored nine goals in his first 12 games for the club as George Burley’s new-look team stormed off to an unlikely title charge in 2005. Recalling the early days at Tynecastle, he said: “It was a strange situation at the start. I was a last-minute arrival and we had a new squad – but we had this amazing start to the season. It was new Hearts, there was a great feeling around the club and, after seven games, we were top of the league.
“There was an amazing atmosphere around the club with the players and the supporters. I always said the Hearts fans gave me super powers because it was an amazing place to play. It didn’t happen overnight. It takes a while to build a relationship with supporters but we started so well. It was like a miracle at the start of that season. The players came together at the last minute and we had such a good start.”
Asked whether Vladimir Romanov’s inexplicable decision to sack Burley while Hearts were top of the league in October cost them their chance of the title, Skacel said: “I don’t know if we could have won the league. I don’t have a crystal ball. But that’s football. It’s why it is so exciting for supporters and players. We can speculate and say, ‘This might have happened’ but we don’t know.”
In the end, Hearts beat Rangers to second place in the league and then defeated Gretna in the 2006 Scottish Cup final before Skacel followed Burley to Southampton. He returned to Tynecastle four years later and, incredibly, found a way to enhance his stock further in the eyes of the Hearts support by ending two relatively fruitful campaigns under Jim Jefferies and then Paulo Sergio with his match-defining double against Hibs in the 2012 Scottish Cup final.
“It was one of the games that I will definitely remember for the rest of my life because it is a famous game in Scotland and in Edinburgh,” he said. “You might have to wait another 100 years to see a Hearts-Hibs game in a big final like that. It’s in the past but I have great memories. It was amazing for the whole community and it was a great result. The parade around Edinburgh, after both finals, were my favourite memories. People say that the moments after the game are the best, but the bus parades through the city were amazing. I will remember them for the rest of my life.”
It is important to point out, amid this maroon-tinted trip down memory lane, that Skacel wants his current club, who are badly out of form in the Championship, to beat his former one on Sunday. “We are professionals, it’s a Scottish Cup tie and I want to do well, even though it’s against my former club,” he said. “It’s an important game for us. We aren’t on a great run right now but this is a different competition. It’s the Scottish Cup, it’s live on TV and it’s a big game for the club and our young squad. It will be a great day on Sunday and hopefully we can get a good result.”
As he had hinted in an exclusive interview with the Evening News last September, Skacel’s time as a professional footballer is likely to be over at the end of this season, with plans in place to open up his own football academy for children in Los Angeles. “Hopefully there will be some more moments from me on the pitch, but there won’t be many because I don’t think I have many days left in front of me,” he said. “I don’t play much at the moment but I want to enjoy every last minute I have as a player. I have had fun at Raith Rovers and hopefully there are a few more moments on the pitch for me. I think I will finish at the end of the season, but you never know. It depends how I feel. I feel fine just now but you can’t play forever. I’m almost 38 and I am not playing much. We will see. But life doesn’t end when your football career ends. I am prepared for that.”
Understandably considering the success he has had in the tournament, Skacel is a big fan of the Scottish Cup and has a grasp on its importance to supporters of clubs who can only dream of winning the country’s top-flight title. “It’s great for the smaller clubs because they have a chance to achieve something,” he said. “It’s not often Scottish clubs get a chance to win things because Celtic and Rangers are massive clubs who win the league but other clubs can win the cups. The Czech Cup is not as big as the Scottish Cup. Over here it’s something special.”
So, did he tune in when Hibs defeated Rangers in the final last May? “I don’t watch football much so I definitely didn’t see this one,” he laughed. “Listen, they lost the big one!”