MARIUS ZALIUKAS has donned Hearts’ famous maroon shirt more times than any other foreign player and made his 200th competitive appearance at Tannadice recently. Now he finds himself at a crossroads in his career with his contract due to expire next June. Will he stay or will he go?
With 202 games to his name, the current captain is by some distance the most prominent foreigner in Tynecastle history. Next on the list is Thomas Flogel with 164 appearances, followed by Eggert Jonsson (154), Kevin McKenna (142), Stephane Adam (130), Ruben Palazuelos/Roald Jensen (both 127) and Saulius Mikoliunas (125).
From that unforgettable goal at Easter Road in 2007 through to his latest faux pas against Livingston, the Lithuanian has been both cringeworthy and sublime during six years in Scotland. He can even showcase both sides of his personality in the same game, as he did by gifting the West Lothian club an equaliser and then scoring twice to win last week’s League Cup third-round tie for Hearts.
Approaching his 29th birthday, Zaliukas finds himself waiting for the club to initiate talks over a new contract. He has declared a desire to negotiate, although there are those who feel he could play at a higher level. Valdas Ivanauskas, the Hearts coach who oversaw Zaliukas’ initial loan move from FBK Kaunas to Tynecastle in 2006, is one of them.
“Marius’ contract runs until the end of this season,” said Ivanauskas. “He has a very good reputation in Scotland and he has a good name in the team because he is the captain. I think he is very serious and a very important player for Hearts because the team is new and there are a lot of young players. Marius is now in a good position for the next stage in his career.
“In my opinion, if he has a chance to go to a big championship like England, Germany, Italy or a country like that, he must think about what he wants for himself. He is at an important stage in his life, he is 28 years old and he is the club captain. If he has chances to go to another country, he must think about it. He is in a good position and he is playing well.
“I saw him play for the Lithuania national team against Slovakia and Greece last month and he is a very important player. I think he could stay but this is a very important stage for him.” Ivanauskas stressed that any move must be for the benefit of Zaliukas’ career and cautioned him against moving to a club where he may not be an automatic first-choice. “If he has chances to change club, Marius must look at the club and the manager because he must play,” continued the Lithuanian. “Now he is playing regularly and he is captain.
“He is a footballer and he knows his career is not long. Maybe he has four, five or six years left at the top level. I know he has enjoyed his time in Edinburgh but he has been there six years now, that is a long time. If he gets a chance to change club, he must go to a league and a club that is good for him and the next stage of his career.
“If he goes to another country and doesn’t play regularly it will be a big problem for him. This is not an easy situation for him. I was in the same position when I played in Germany and I had a lot of chances to move. I knew what stage I was at and I knew my position with Hamburg. It was my mistake to go back to Austria at that time.
“For Marius, I think it is time to change. Hearts is one of three, four or five clubs with a chance to win the league in Scotland. Celtic are strong but not as strong as they were four or five years ago.
“Marius must think about all aspects of football, of life in other countries, of clubs and of managers if he decides to move and join a new team.”
Ivanauskas has offered Zaliukas advice since he left Hearts in 2007. The player has not been without difficult times – a lack of discipline resulting in too many red cards, costly mistakes and own goals – but has overcome them and retained his place in in the centre of defence.
He enjoys something of a cult following amongst the Tynecastle support due to his penchant for clowning around. Having lifted the Scottish Cup in May after the 5-1 demolition of Hibs, he can also justifiably claim legendary status.
Ivanauskas recalls enjoying a similar notoriety at Hamburg. “I was in a very good position with our supporters in Hamburg.
“We had a big stadium and a big fanbase and it’s the same at Hearts. But it’s not easy for Marius. I can understand the supporters but they must also understand that players’ careers are not long. Marius has a chance to change so he must think about the next stage.
“I know some fans will want him to stay but players are people and they have to think about their own lives.
“Only Marius can decide if he will stay or go. I spoke with Marius during the summer when he was in Lithuania. I talk with Edgaras (Jankauskas) and sometimes I call Marius and ask how he feels. I can help him because I was in the same position in Germany.”