As Hearts head to Belfast to continue their first tentative steps into life after Vladimir Romanov, they will come up against a man who briefly got to sample for himself how chaotic the Edinburgh club could be under the ownership of the madcap Russian.
Stephen Baxter, the manager of Crusaders, and his assistant, Jeff Spiers, used a link to their fellow Northern Irishman John Murray, Hearts’ current director of football, to set up a visit to Riccarton as part of their pro licence. It was early 2010 and Csaba Laszlo was on his last legs as Hearts manager, so much so, in fact, that the eccentric Hungarian was sacked the day after the Crues management team returned to Belfast.
“Part of the criteria for the pro licence is that you have to spend a week at another club outside your jurisdiction and then come and report back and do a whole presentation on it,” recalls Baxter, whose side face Hearts in a friendly in Belfast tomorrow night. “I was connected to Umbro, who were Hearts’ main sponsors at the time. Their guy in Northern Ireland introduced me to John and he set it up for us.
“I went over to Hearts for a week and had the opportunity to see everything from the training structure to the stadium, and I met loads of folk. It was very good, I was able to see a lot up close and personal. We got to see everything right from the bottom up and how the club worked in its entirety. I saw Hearts play Aberdeen [in a 3-0 midweek defeat at Tynecastle which proved to be Laszlo’s last game] and it was good to see how they prepared for the match.
“I spent a bit of time with Csaba and he was certainly an interesting character. It didn’t sound like he wanted to be there and he ended up getting sacked on the Friday. There was a wee Russian guy called Tino, who seemed to be doing everything. We were quite surprised at how young he was because he was running around organising everything. He seemed to be trouble-shooting.”
Baxter could sense during his time at Riccarton that things weren’t quite right, with regard to the manager’s situation. “Yes, very much so,” he says, when asked if he could tell Laszlo’s days were numbered. “On the Thursday [the day after the Aberdeen defeat] we were back at the university and we were meant to be doing a couple of things, but John Murray pulled us aside and said that our itinerary was going to have to change a bit. We had spent some time with Laszlo on the first two days of our trip and we were supposed to be doing something with him on the last day, but that was scrapped because he was called into meetings. The next day he was gone.”
Despite the sense of gloom and uncertainty around the club at the time, Baxter, whose NIFL Premiership side are part-time, remains indebted to Hearts for allowing him an invaluable behind-the-scenes look at how a full-time club goes about its business. Touched by memories of how well he was looked after, he is looking forward to catching up with Murray when his side face Hearts at The Oval, home of Glentoran.
“John Murray was fabulous. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to say hello to him tomorrow night. He’s an ex-Derry man. He picked us up at the airport and looked after us like royalty. I did a presentation on the Hearts academy and the whole set-up that John was dealing with. It was great to meet other people in the game and share different ideas. It’s always beneficial to do something like that. I got loads out of it. We picked up on a couple of things that weren’t right, but, by and large, we got to see all the football side of things, which is what we wanted.”
Baxter knows Hearts are now a significantly different animal to the one he encountered three and a half years ago, having lurched into administration and lost most of their established players. However, he still expects Gary Locke’s streamlined squad of hungry homegrown kids to provide his part-timers with a stern test in the Crusaders Tournament tomorrow. “It’s always good to see good young players coming through who are lively and keen to play a wee bit and that will give our part-time players a lot to think about,” he said. “My players will see Hearts as a big game. That’s always the case when we come up against full-time opposition.
“It’s very much a big deal for us. It’s always good for us to play against full-time opposition. We played Liverpool in a glamour friendly last year and we’ve had a few Scottish teams over in the past few years. It helps us in our preparations to play that level of opposition that are a bit quicker and sharper than other part-timers.”
Baxter is just relieved to have a game to look forward to, with the Crusaders manager admitting he feared the tournament would be scrapped as Spanish side Celta Vigo pulled out just after Hearts had entered administration. Indeed it did appear to have bitten the dust at one point earlier this month, but then Glentoran stepped into the breach, offering their services as a fourth team as well as a more suitable venue than the Ballymena Showground, which had originally been due to stage the four-team tournament.
“The tournament seemed doomed so I’m glad it’s going ahead,” he said. “It’s a huge part of our pre-season build-up ahead of our first league game and if it had been cancelled, we’d be left searching for lesser opposition, which wouldn’t have been beneficial for us. It’s important to me that the boys have some high-level football and thankfully we’ve got that with the tournament going ahead. I’d have preferred to have the tournament at our ground because we are officially the host club, but Liverpool [who are sending an XI] wanted to play on grass. Originally it was supposed to be at Ballymena, but the Oval suits us better because it’s closer and it’s a good set-up. They’ve got a nice big pitch, which Hearts will enjoy playing on.”
Baxter knows Hearts, with a 15-point penalty and still in the throes of administration, must brace themselves for a tough season, but he believes it can also represent a fresh start. “This year’s going to be a survival year for them, but sometimes it’s a good thing for a team to hit rock-bottom,” he said. “When I came to Crusaders, we’d just been relegated and it gives you a proper opportunity to build your way back. I’m sure the supporters will be patient and let Gary develop the young lads over the next year or two.
“They’ll certainly love it in Belfast – it’s the friendliest place on earth. The weather’s been wonderful over the last few weeks, so we’re looking forward to welcoming Hearts.”