Having earned an unexpected reprieve, Zdenek Zlamal plans to keep a firm grip of the Hearts goalkeeping position between now and the end of the season. A clean sheet against managerless Celtic tonight would aid his cause considerably, but the giant Czech knows football is a fickle sport.
He was demoted in December following Hearts’ 5-0 lashing at Livingston and replaced by the Irishman Colin Doyle, who had been firmly second choice until that point. Ten games later, Doyle’s costly mistake at Fir Park combined with Zlamal’s diligence in training saw another changing of the guard.
Zlamal was reinstated against St Mirren on Saturday and has no intention of relinquishing the gloves again. Hearts host Celtic in one of the season’s most high-octane fixtures this evening before a Scottish Cup quarter-final trip to Partick Thistle. The 33-year-old finds himself back involved at a potentially pivotal juncture of the campaign. Now all he has to do is stay there.
“This is a very important period,” said the keeper, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “We are playing against Celtic at home, which is a huge game for us. Anything can happen and I hope we can have a successful night. After that is a Scottish Cup game, which is also very big. We have to focus on these next two matches. Every game is important for us.
“If we win against Celtic, the fans will be euphoric. Not every club wins against Celtic. If we win, everything [about recent disappointing results] will be forgotten but we will need to be much better than we were on Saturday. St Mirren stay in defence and play to break forward but I think Celtic will play more offensively. That can be to our advantage, but you never know in football. I expect our strikers will have some more space tonight.”
Zlamal is particularly pleased to return to the first team in time to face the Premiership champions, who will be without Leicester City-bound manager Brendan Rodgers.
That issue has dominated headlines in the build-up to this evening’s match, allowing Hearts to prepare in the background. Defensively they are short with no recognised left-back available and injury also affecting the right-back and central defensive areas.
Zlamal may need to wait until nearer kick-off to discover who will play in front of him, but that has not dulled his enthusiasm for the encounter. He played in the 1-0 home victory over Celtic last August and retains fond memories from it.
“I like this game, it is competitive. This is why I play football and it is the same for other players as well. I love it,” he exclaimed. “We have good memories from winning 1-0 against Celtic in August and I hope we can repeat it.”
At the back of his mind, the amiable Czech knows he cannot afford any slip-ups. Manager Craig Levein has already shown both his goalkeepers that errors will be punished.
“It’s a question for the gaffer but I hope it will be like this so that I stay in the team. I’m happy but anything and everything could happen – an injury or a bad performance. I will prepare and do my best in training and in each game.
“The manager told me on Saturday morning that I was playing against St Mirren. I’m pleased I am back in the team but we didn’t win. We were disappointed with a 1-1 result. We now have to focus on the Celtic game.”
There is still a good degree of sympathy lingering in Zlamal’s mind for Doyle. Hearts were seconds away from a point at Fir Park a week past Sunday when the Irishman let an innocuous David Turnbull free-kick slip through his grasp and over his shoulder in the net. Sitting on the substitutes’ bench, Doyle’s understudy knew exactly the emotions he was suffering.
“I felt sorry for him because I know how he feels. It’s our job,” said Zlamal. “If a striker misses a penalty or a midfielder or defender makes a mistake, nobody cares so much. When a goalkeeper makes a mistake, everybody sees it. We have to be very strong psychologically.
“It has happened to me, it has happened to Doyley, it has happened to Gianluigi Buffon and every other goalkeeper. What is important is that, after the mistake, you have to be strong.”
He resisted the temptation to approach Doyle in the dressing room at full-time.
“If I make a mistake, I don’t like somebody to come and speak to me about it or ask me what happened. It’s just words. It’s better to say nothing. That’s my opinion.
“Maybe other goalkeepers feel differently but I think it is better to just leave it. I have a very good relationship with Doyley and he is a good guy.”
Regardless how you dress it up, his friend’s misfortune created a chance for Zlamal to reclaim the goalkeeping position he held exclusively for six months after joining Hearts last summer.
In his head, he was determined to prepare for training sessions and games properly in the hope he would be called upon again. That chance came slightly earlier than expected.
“It is difficult for a goalkeeper,” he said. “Last week I did my best in training as always and then the manager told me I would play. In football, whether you play or don’t play, you have to be ready because you never know what can happen. When I was on the bench, I always prepared like I would play. We are professional so we have to be ready all the time.”
Tonight he will be ready to try and stop a Celtic team chasing eight successive Scottish titles and thus help ensure he remains Hearts’ first-choice.