ON THE day that the skipper underwent an operation on his ankle, Hearts manager John McGlynn conceded that Marius Zaliukas could well have played his last game for the club.
McGlynn relayed the grim news yesterday and saluted Zaliukas’s contribution to the club since his arrival from Lithuiania in 2006. Now 29, he has spent much of his twenties at Tynecastle and has survived myriad upheavals, including a spell when owner Vladimir Romanov instructed then manager Jim Jefferies not to select him after negotiations over a new contract had stalled.
Including McGlynn and also caretaker appointments, Zaliukas has served under nine managers since arriving during Valdas Ivanauskas’ tenure.
He will be forever associated with last season’s 5-1 victory over Hibernian in the Scottish Cup final and as skipper held the trophy aloft at the end. Although now not relevant, he was due to sit out the forthcoming League Cup final against St Mirren because of suspension. Sadly, he also appears set to miss the rest of the campaign, after which his contract expires.
Given the current financial uncertainty at Hearts, it is far from certain he will be offered a new deal. In any case, Zaliukas himself might feel his own ambitions lie elsewhere after seven years at the club.
McGlynn yesterday described Zaliukas as a “fine ambassador” for Hearts and looked forward to him still having a part to the play in the cup final preparations. “He has seen loads of fellow team-mates come and go and managers come and go, so he has seen it all, and he has been consistent throughout,” he said. “That speaks volumes for him. Once he gets through the operation and gets back to the football club I am sure he will be lending a hand [before the cup final] with his advice and experience, particularly with the younger players.”
When asked whether last weekend’s clash with Dundee United, during which he injured ankle ligaments in a tussle for the ball with Johnny Russell, will stand as Zaliukas’s last appearance in a maroon shirt, McGlynn replied: “Possibly.”
McGlynn predicted a 12-week lay-off for the player, who opted to undergo an operation yesterday rather than complete three months worth of rehabilitation work on the ankle, when an operation might then still be needed. “It was a kind of no-brainer,” said McGlynn. “If he decided to rehabilitate it for 12 weeks and then still needed the operation then that would be 24 weeks out.
“You are talking about whether he has played his last game,” added the manager. “That’s getting away from the fact that it’s a blow for the boy right now. He is the captain of the football club, he picked up the Scottish Cup in May. Unfortunately he was not able to play in the League Cup final anyway, but if he was fit he would have played in all the other games and he still would have been the captain of the football club and taken us through to the end of the season.
“It’s a massive blow for Marius who has had two or three years without any injury, playing every week.”
McGlynn has not had his troubles to seek. He has already lost left-back Danny Grainger for the season due to a cruciate injury while full back/midfielder Jamie Hamill is on the recovery trail after nearly a year out due to the same ailment.
“We don’t have loads of experienced players,” said the manager. “Hopefully we have used up our bad luck. We can do without any more of these long-term injuries.” Hamill, he revealed, has been back in training for a week, but, the manager added, it could be “pushing it” to expect him to return in time to feature in the cup final next month.
McGlynn warned Zaliukas to expect a demanding period of recovery and rehabilitation. “The longer-term is the issue for him,” he said. “He is obviously down now. But it is a long way back. That is when it becomes more gruelling, when you can’t see light at the end of the tunnel.
“At the minute, it has just happened. It’s when you are into four, five, six, seven weeks and you still see four, five, six, seven weeks ahead of you, that is when it becomes difficult for players.”
McGlynn sought to view the loss of Zaliukas as an opportunity for others to make a claim for a berth in the side, starting with tomorrow’s home league fixture against Kilmarnock. The manager has already proved more than willing to promote youngsters from the Under-20s side. “You try and be positive and think of it as one door closing and other one opening,” he said. “You look at others, and there are always others worse off. Aberdeen went through a horrendous spell there. We still have a fairly strong squad. We have someone like Darren Barr who can come in there, or we can reshuffle Danny Wilson around the pitch and play Kevin McHattie.
“And there are others in the Under-20s who could maybe come in and do a job. There’s an opportunity this week with Ryan [Stevenson] being suspended and Marius not being available, so there’s another couple of spaces there that need taken up.”
McGlynn knows that it could be a lot worse. Injuries are inevitable. However, what he has had to deal with off the pitch this season is not what a manager might necessarily expect.
A year on from Rangers’ plunge into administration, McGlynn said he had had great respect for the way in which Ally McCoist has dealt with “an incredible situation”. His own conduct has met with praise this season as Hearts’ financial situation has raised concern, with the latest worry being the news this week that Ukio Bankas, the Lithuanian bank in which Romanov is a majority shareholder, has gone into administration.
Asked his own thoughts on this development yesterday, McGlynn referred reporters to the statement released by Hearts earlier this week, and in which Tynecastle director Sergejus Fedotovas insisted the bank’s predicament will have “little effect” on the football club. “We were told before the statement came out what it would say,” said McGlynn. “And that is what I believe.”