Three Rangers players face Hearts this weekend for the first time since leaving Tynecastle.
Marius Zaliukas, Ian Black and David Templeton meet their former club in Sunday’s Championship opener at Ibrox and may be unsure about what reception to expect from visiting fans. To add extra piquancy, Lee Wallace is also up against his old employers.
Anticipation is building ahead of the most intriguing Scottish second tier in history. The number of Rangers players with Hearts on their CVs merely intensifies the build-up to Sunday’s encounter. Zaliukas in particular will command plenty attention as a recent signing from Leeds United who captained Hearts to their historic Scottish Cup final win over Hibs just two years ago.
The Lithuanian’s emotions will be mixed, as might those of childhood Hearts fan Black. Wallace and Templeton both passed through the Riccarton youth academy and drew more than £2million in combined transfer fees when they joined Rangers in 2011 and 2012 respectively. They would be entitled to still feel some sense of affinity.
Yet there is no room for sentiment in football, and certainly not at Rangers in this of all seasons. Manager Ally McCoist is under pressure to deliver promotion to the Scottish Premiership three years since his club were liquidated and started as a new entity in Scotland’s bottom division.
One man who knows the conflicting emotions of an ex-Hearts player at Rangers is Andrius Velicka. Like his compatriot Zaliukas, he left Hearts for a brief stint in another country – in his case Viking Stavanger of Norway – before Rangers came calling. He explained that his affection for the Edinburgh club never waned but Rangers was simply an opportunity he could not refuse.
“When I was at Hearts, I was always looking forward to playing against Rangers and Celtic because these are big teams with very big players,” said Velicka, now 35 and still scoring goals in his homeland with Zalgiris Vilnius. “When I was at Rangers, it was like playing against my team when we came up against Hearts. That’s the only way I can explain it. Hearts was my first team and you always want to show something against them.
“I think everyone in Scotland wants to play for Rangers or for Celtic, even in the lower divisions, because of the stadiums, the facilities and even for the money. Rangers are paying more money than teams in the Scottish Premiership.
“People are looking more at Rangers players even than players who play for teams in the top league in Scotland. Lee and Temps had chances to play for the Scottish national team when Rangers were in the bottom division. That shows it is a good opportunity.”
As Velicka intimated, cash is a consideration for most players approached by Rangers. The Glasgow club were criticised for paying wages in excess of £5000-a- week whilst playing in Scotland’s Third Division, especially following their financial collapse. Templeton in particular received abuse for leaving Hearts in the top flight to join Rangers in the bottom two years ago.
Velicka is at pains to stress he did not sign for Rangers for financial reward at a time when Champions League football was a regular occurrence at Ibrox. He had scored 26 goals in 56 games and become something of a talismanic figure at Hearts before heading to Stavanger. He viewed the quick return to Scotland as a chance to further his career.
“Money was not a factor. [David] Murray just called me and said that Rangers wanted me and that [Walter] Smith wanted to see me. I didn’t need to think. Rangers were in the Champions League and I was playing in Norway. I wanted to come back to Scotland because I knew everything there. Scotland was my home even before Rangers. You can get this offer once in your life so when I got the opportunity to go to Rangers I had no doubts.
“Some people said to me, ‘you are only going for money, blah, blah, blah’. I think normal people understand that Rangers, at that time, was a higher level. It was an opportunity to play in Europe. I was happy at Hearts but, honestly, Rangers was a bigger team at that time.”
Velicka didn’t make the impression he wanted and found game time restricted. “I was happy at Rangers but I wanted to play more,” he continued. “We had so many strikers so I had to wait for my opportunity. There was Kenny Miller, Kris Boyd, Kyle Lafferty, Daniel Cousin and Jean-Claude Darcheville. That’s five strikers and, with me, it was six.”
Circumstances at both Ibrox and Tynecastle have changed dramatically since then, although veterans Miller and Boyd rejoined Rangers this summer. Hearts spent last season in administration and were relegated following a 15-point deduction. Hibs’ relegation combined with Rangers’ promotion from League One makes for a fiercely competitive Championship.
It remains to be seen what response comes from the Tynecastle support when they see Zaliukas in a blue shirt. “Zaliukas, in my opinion, is the best centre-half from Lithuania so I was very happy when he signed for Rangers,” continued Velicka. “I’m going to see him later this year and I will go to Ibrox to see a game. I’m happy for him.
“I don’t know if he will find it difficult against Hearts. It is not the same Hearts team as when he was there. For him, he will want to show something. It’s always nice to play against the team you played for before. I don’t know what kind of reception he will get. I think it will be like it always is – there will be a lot of noise from the Hearts fans.”