RUDI SKACEL specialised in Scottish Cup success with Hearts rather than League Cup. Now back in his native Czech Republic with Slavia Prague, the 33-year-old knows the significance of reaching the final of a competition affectionately known around Tynecastle as “the wee cup”.
To deliver a trophy at the end of a season of cost-cutting and financial turmoil would cheer supporters who have suffered throughout this campaign.
Changes in personnel at Hearts mean only Jamie MacDonald, Andy Webster and Darren Barr from last May’s Scottish Cup final starting line-up are likely to take the field tomorrow. Skacel would love to be there, but he was sacrificed to save money after orchestrating the 5-1 defeat of Hibs. A brief spell at Dundee United preceded a return home and a short-term contract at Slavia.
In the meantime, Hearts have flirted with outright closure due to unpaid bills and demands for money from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Their league form has seen them skirt the bottom of the Scottish Premier League, while their Scottish Cup defence failed at the first hurdle at Easter Road.
The League Cup, traditionally third on the priority list behind the SPL and Scottish Cup, is more important than ever right now. “The League Cup is not a major thing. It’s a big final and a little party which everybody can enjoy,” said Skacel, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “A good result can bring something back for the fans because they needed cheered up. This season has been a little bit disappointing for a club like Hearts.
“I haven’t had much time to think about this final because I just signed for Slavia and we have a game this weekend. I will go and watch the game on TV with my girlfriend in some English pub somewhere here.
“It will be a big day for the Jambos family and hopefully they enjoy a good day. This season so far has not been so good so I hope they have another party at Hampden.
“Everybody knows what is going on at Hearts and I think the supporters have helped. They did a great job last year in the semi-final and the final. They made an incredible atmosphere, even before the game, and these things can help.”
What is going on is one of the biggest transitions in Hearts’ history. Those who have followed Skacel out the exit door include senior figures like Ian Black, Craig Beattie, Stephen Elliott, Suso Santana, David Templeton Andy Driver and Ryan McGowan. Their places have been taken by youth academy graduates like Callum Tapping, Dale Carrick, Jamie Walker, Billy King, Jason Holt, Fraser Mullen and Kevin McHattie. It is a turnaround nothing short of remarkable.
Skacel feels the influx of young players puts additional pressure on the remaining established names. “I’m not surprised because that’s the way the club wanted to go this season; they decided to play young boys,” he continued.
“I said straight away after the final last year that I have my opinion. You can’t play just old players and you can’t play just young boys. There has to be some kind of mix and then you have a healthy dressing-room and do a good job.
“There is too much pressure and I think if the only reason you play is because you are young it is ridiculous. You need good timing and you need good experience. For a young player it is very difficult to jump straight into the SPL.
“I said many things last year about that. This is the way the club wants to do it and at this moment they have to do it because of financial troubles. It’s tough for Hearts and tough for the supporters, but they have to do it.
“The young boys need to step up and grab this big experience. It’s a big chance for them. Under normal circumstances they probably wouldn’t have so many chances to play in the team.
“They have to appreciate this and do everything for the club. Guys like Webby [Webster] and others will help them.
“There are a lot of young boys, but they need time. They need good coaching staff to work with them every day and help them build up and be better players. If you are playing with six or seven young players it doesn’t make sense.”
Hearts enter tomorrow’s final with an interim manager in charge, just as they did the 2006 Scottish Cup final when Valdas Ivanauskas occupied a caretaker role. This time it’s Gary Locke who gets the chance to lead the club he has supported since childhood into a national cup final.
“It’s an incredible time for him because he is a big Jambo and he will do everything for the club. I wish him all the best,” said Skacel.
“We had a great dressing-room and a great team in 2006. Because there were so many changes during that year, I think that team played by itself at the end of the day.
“There were so many strengths so it was actually easier to react to all the changes and prepare for big games like the cup final. This is a different story because it is a different team now and you cannot compare.
“It is much easier if you have a lot of experienced players; they can help each other and manage stuff. We had so many managers during the 2005-06 season and sometimes that can destroy the team.
“In 2006, we had much more supporters than Gretna, but a final is always 50-50.”