HEARTS captain Marius Zaliukas claims that, even if Hibernian were to defeat Celtic in this season’s Scottish Cup final and end their 111 years of hurt, it could never compensate for last season’s final.
The date of 19 May 2012 already has a place in Hearts’ history books – a 5-1 Scottish Cup final victory over their city rivals and Zaliukas is in no doubt about its significance.
The Lithuanian defender says he will not be watching this term’s Hampden showdown but insists the outcome will have no impact on Hearts’ bragging rights over their derby foes.
He said: “How could it make up for last year? It is in the history books now. It is the biggest derby and we won it and they can’t change anything. There’s nothing they can do. They would need to beat us 5-1 in a final. It’s impossible. There’s no way back.”
Zaliukas was talking at the Tesco Bank Football Challenge Festival at Tynecastle, which was attended by children from a dozen Edinburgh primary schools. But it was after the venue was cleared and he took to the pitch for a private kickabout with a friend’s child that yet another reminder of that Hampden final was served up. The tot was kitted out in the Hearts away strip and, significantly, the number on the back of the shirt was 51 and Zaliukas believes no-one with any affection for the Tynecastle club will ever allow Hibs to forget that Scottish Cup skelping.
With this season all but over, the out-of-contract 29-year-old is simply craving a couple of minutes’ play, away to Aberdeen on Saturday, so he can bid what is likely to be a fond farewell to the supporters who have warmed to their captain during his seven years in Scotland.
Casting his mind back to the early days, he shudders. His bedding-in period at Tynecastle was lengthy and trying as he adapted to a different style of football, struggled in a holding midfield berth and found the culture alien and the referees and media far from welcoming.
“At the beginning everything was hard to understand. From the first minute to the last, everybody works so hard. That was not normal for me. Even if a team was losing 2-0, they kept going and going. I like that now, but, obviously, I had a few relaxed moments and mistakes came from that in the first couple of years. But the criticism about how bad I am, my ‘bombscare’ moments, all the things I was reading about all the time, they all made me stronger.
“For two years it was hard to adapt to the football tempo, the lifestyle, the mentality, everything. It did not help that I was played out of my position. Everything came together to make it hard. But here I am, seven years on. I am happy with that, it is a good country with good football.
“In the last couple of years it has been more consistent and I am happy and proud, because I have become who I am in this club. It feels like home.”
It is unlikely to be home for much longer. Zaliukas says he has agreed to come back to Riccarton for pre-season training but, given Hearts’ cash constraints, he does not know where his future lies. Unlikely to accept the kind of pay cut which would be necessary for his stay at Hearts to be extended, he says he just wants the chance to say goodbye to the Gorgie faithful.
Battling back from an ankle injury, he would love the season to be extended by a few more games to give him the chance to get back to full fitness. With just 90 minutes of the Tynecastle club’s campaign remaining, however, he is still hoping to play a part in a fraction of them.
“I want to play a couple of minutes. Maybe it is 50/50.”
Zaliukas had been praying for that opportunity in the side’s final home game of the season, the derby defeat by Hibs on Sunday but the chance did not materialise.
“I thought I would get to play against Hibs for one or two minutes but it was the decision of the gaffer. I understand that it was too much to start a game but, honestly I just want a couple of minutes. I wanted so much to come on against Hibs because I have been here for seven years and the place is so special for me.
“I don’t know if Hibs would have still scored their [late Ross Caldwell] goal – I wanted to play as a striker! Maybe if I had come on for those minutes then I would have scored.
“It was a frustrating weekend for the players and for the fans it was a bad day.”
But if Zaliukas does end up leaving the Tynecastle club, he says it is that Cup final triumph will be the memory he will treasure most.
“I remember that for the last 40 minutes [of the Cup final] I was just preparing myself to lift the cup. Even after the semi, when we beat Celtic, I was confident straight away that it was going to be a final that we were not going to lose.
“It was a great day for everyone.
“We just dominated all the time and, whenever we had played Hibs, we just dominated and so everyone was confident.”
That night the players and their families celebrated in the Gorgie Suite and their captain says he was careful not to drink too much as he didn’t want a hangover to spoil his enjoyment of the next day’s victory parade. But, looking back, he says nothing could have taken the shine off that occasion.
“The best was at Haymarket, when we turned [into Dalry Road] and it was just full of Hearts fans.”
A year on he insists he is “not bothered” who wins and doesn’t care if it’s Hibs.
“That day is already there in history and there’s nothing they can do about it,” he said.