Six months ago he was Hearts’ cup final hero. Now he’s focused on Dundee United but his heart still lies in Gorgie
SITTING amongst his team-mates at the Dundee United training ground, Rudi Skacel is adamant that the past is the past. He wants to concentrate on carving out some new moments worth treasuring.
It’s the kind of statement which will please his manager Peter Houston, who has the attacking midfielder signed up until January; the kind of thing the Tannadice club’s fans want to hear. But while he is undoubtedly professional and dedicated to the job in hand, there, fittingly just above his heart, printed on his training top, is the number 51. It suggests there’s little he could achieve in what remains of his career that could usurp the magical memories he has already stashed away.
There were four different goalscorers in the Hearts ranks when the Tynecastle club beat Hibs 5-1 to lift the Scottish Cup in May but he was the iconic figure on a day few Edinburgh football fans will forget. He was the one under the maroon and white curly wig, climbing above his team-mates and the presentation party when it was his turn to hoist aloft the trophy as one end of Hampden erupted. It was his double contribution to the goals haul which helped give the scoreline such enduring emphasis, rubbing salt in Hibernian wounds which may never heal.
This afternoon though, as the Scottish Cup holders begin their defence of the trophy knowing that they will have to pick up from where they left off in May against their city rivals, albeit this time in Leith rather than the national stadium, Skacel will be a spectator rather than one of the primary orchestrators.
Yesterday he was wrapped up in his day job, playing for Dundee United against Stranraer at Stair Park in a match as far removed from today’s capital derby as is possible in the same competition. This afternoon, though, he will sit down in front of the television to cheer on the club he was always happiest at.
“Once a Jambo, always a Jambo! I am a supporter and will always support them, especially against the Hibs. I hope they go through but for now it is more important what we do here at United, not Hearts.”
United are the club paying his wages, they are the ones who gave him a contract when his intended exit from Scottish football – to try his hand in the USA or return to his Czech homeland – didn’t go as planned. He was training with Hearts and the expectation was he would return for a third spell at the Gorgie club but the late payment of wages scuppered that as the authorities imposed a signing ban. Skacel just shifts uncomfortably and shrugs. Life doesn’t always go as expected. He is enjoying life at Tannadice and feels the need to give United everything he has. But he left his heart at Tynecastle.
This is the guy who signed for Dundee United and immediately asked for shirt number 51 in homage to the scoreline at Hampden. That caused something of a furore. The intention was not to offend the United fans. It wasn’t even meant to particularly wind up the Hibs fans, but his manager apologised to them anyway. Skacel is sorry if it upset the supporters of a club where he is quickly beginning to feel at home, he’s sorry if it put a manager he likes in an awkward position, but no one should hold their breath waiting for an apology to anyone at Easter Road.
“I promised the [Hearts] supporters that if I left the club for another club somewhere else then I would do that as a present for the Hearts supporters. It was nothing more, nothing less. If I was playing in Czech or America then no one would care really but because it is over here it was a big deal. I don’t need to ask Hibs fans to forgive me, I don’t have to apologise to them. It wasn’t for them, it was between me and the Hearts supporters because I wanted to thank them. It was nothing else and it was only made into something bigger by the Hibs fans and the media.”
This afternoon’s fixture is one he would revel in. He loves the big-match pressure, the intensity, and he comes alive when there is an opportunity to become a hero.
“Cup games are always special and exciting for players and exciting for supporters as well. I like one-off games. You know you cannot have a bad game, you cannot make a mistake because it can cost you a lot.” Few outwith Celtic and Rangers get their hands on multiple cup winners’ medals but thanks to victories in 2006 and 2012, Skacel has done so.
“It is nice but I don’t want to speak about the past just now. They are very good memories and maybe I will speak to my kids about them one day! I enjoyed it all at the time but the past is past. Just now I am focused on the future, on the next game for Dundee United. I need desperately to play games. When I spoke with the gaffer I knew I wanted to go here because I knew I could come and help them and they could help me. I am just such a short time here but I have been surprised how good it feels. I want to give them something back and I want to score some goals because so far I have been unlucky or just missed chances. I want to do well.”
He meant it when he said the weekend priority was United beating Stranraer, not Hearts beating Hibs but if he could have both he would be delighted. He recently gave up a Sunday to help his former club in their time of need, pulling pints and mixing with punters at an Edinburgh pub fundraiser aimed at preventing the serving of a winding up order and it’s clear that his bonds with Hearts, so intrinsically linked with the best times of his career, will never be broken.
“I don’t like to really talk about this kind of stuff because it’s really not fair but I try to help them. It is sad and hopefully they will fix it because you don’t want Hearts to disappear. They are the third-biggest club so hopefully the people who own the club can do something and everyone else realises that they can’t lose another big club. I feel bad for the players and especially the supporters. They don’t deserve this kind of thing so hopefully the people who are responsible for this do the maximum to save Hearts and keep them alive because it is a fantastic club.”
At the moment they are not his club, though. Well, not his only club. For now his focus is on United. Apart from this afternoon, of course.