FROM punching Carl Finnigan in the face to lifting the Scottish Cup, it has been seven eventful years for Marius Zaliukas in Edinburgh. He now wants to bid farewell properly before his contract expires by playing in Hearts’ last SPL match of the season against Aberdeen at Pittodrie.
Tynecastle’s highest earner has been recovering from torn ankle ligaments since February but hopes to appear for at least a few minutes on Saturday to say goodbye. He is unlikely to be offered a new deal, certainly not on his existing terms, and must therefore consider his future away from Hearts even though he will do pre-season training at Riccarton to complete his rehabilitation.
Recalling his career in Scotland, Zaliukas intimated that the SPL is responsible for making him the player he is. He arrived in Gorgie initially on loan from the Lithuanian club FBK Kaunas in 2006. His lowest point came three years later in a Scottish Cup defeat to Falkirk, when he was red carded for the third time that season after punching and kicking Finnigan. Three years after that, he captained Hearts to victory in that very competition as the 5-1 victory over Hibs became the greatest day in the club’s history.
It has been quite a journey for the 29-year-old, and little wonder he wants one last cameo appearance. “I want to play a couple of minutes and I wish there was a few more games to play,” he said. “Maybe it is 50/50 whether I play. I am happy my rehabilitation went so well.” And if he is denied the chance to play? “I’m going to kill Lockie (his manager). I thought I would get to play against Hibs on Sunday for one or two minutes, but it was the decision of the gaffer. I hope he is going to understand me for the Aberdeen game.
“I understand that it is too much to start a game and, 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 goal if I was on the pitch - I wanted to play as a striker! Maybe if I had come on for those minutes then I would have scored.
“Just now, my biggest concern is my ankle and getting fit. I am going to come back here for pre-season.”
So unsettling were Zaliukas’ early months in Scotland that he considered returning to eastern Europe. He was widely criticised for sub-standard performances in midfield and didn’t enjoy life off the field. “I thought after six months that I would leave. It was just terrible. But 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.
“I played in holding midfield at the start. It was terrible. Don’t go there. I still have nightmares sometimes,” he laughed. “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. I never packed my bags but I knew the call could come any day to say it is all over. But here I am, seven years on. I am happy with that, it is a good country with good football.
“At the beginning everything was hard to understand, from the first minute to the last everybody works so hard. It was not normal for me; even if a team was losing 2-0, they keep 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.”
The criticism eventually drove him to improve his consistency after reverting to central defence. “Everyone helped me, even the criticism about how bad I am and my bombscare moments. All the things I am reading about all the time, they all made me stronger. Of course, I became who I am over here and I’m going to be happy and grateful for that. Football is more physical here and that makes it more interesting.”
If the low points were soul-destroying, one particular high made up for it. Zaliukas’ facial expression as he lifted the Scottish Cup last year illustrated the sense of achievement he felt at winning a major honour. “The 19th of May is obviously the highlight, although there are many good games. And many bad, which I don’t like to talk about. The Falkirk game is top of the bad list,” he said.
“I remember that for the last 40 minutes of the final I was 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. Whenever we played Hibs we just dominated and so everyone was confident.
“It was an exciting day and everyone in the team was here in the Gorgie Suite afterwards with friends and family and we were all very happy. I didn’t want to drink too much that night because I knew that the next day would be a big day and a big parade. I can’t handle a big hangover so I just watched myself.”
Asked if a Hibs victory in this year’s Scottish Cup would atone for last year’s defeat, Zaliukas responded: “No? How? It is in the history books now. It is the biggest derby and we won and they can’t change anything. There’s nothing they can do. They would need to beat us in a final. It’s impossible. There’s no way back. It was 5-1, it is already in history and there’s nothing they can do.”
Financial problems since then have threatened Hearts’ very existence, meaning the kind of exorbitant salary earned by Zaliukas is no longer sustainable. He is not bitter, more thankful to the club owner Vladimir Romanov for the opportunity. “I have to say thank you to Vlad for bringing me over here,” he said. “Maybe the club would have collapsed seven years ago. But now everyone would agree that it (money problems) can happen to clubs like this. It is now part of football.”
Is there any chance he could stay, even on a much-reduced wage? “Honestly, it depends on the club, and what they can afford. But it will be Lockie who will decide what kind of players he wants and depends on how much he can spend. I think everyone understands that now the team is getting younger and all these lads are coming from the academy and they are playing a long time together and I hope that in a couple of years time that it will be a really rock solid team.”