Such was the Lithuanian influence at Hearts during Vladimir Romanov’s tumultuous reign that players embedded in the national squad from the Baltic nation used to be familiar faces among the Scottish footballing fraternity.
The last time Lithuania visited Hampden for a competitive encounter in September 2011, there were no fewer than seven internationalists with a Tynecastle connection.
Marius Zaliukas, Deividas Cesnauskis, Saulius Mikoliunas and Linas Pilibaitis all started the 1-0 Euro qualifying defeat, Arvydas Novikovas and Ricardas Beniusis came off the bench, while Kestutis Ivaskevicius was an unused substitute. Romanov’s hasty retreat from Hearts in the wake of the club’s plunge into administration in June 2013 signalled the end of this controversial policy of using the club as a platform to showcase Lithuanian footballers.
The Lithuania side that returns to Hampden Park for Saturday’s World Cup qualifying clash will be less recognisable.
Cesnauskis, now 35 and captain of Trakai in his homeland, remains involved but returns listed as a defender after being utilised on the flank at Hearts. Fellow winger Novikovas, who is out of favour at German second tier outfit Bochum, is the only other former Hearts player in the squad.
Amid the legion of players from Lithuania that were barely worthy of wearing the Hearts jersey, Cesnauskis and Novikovas, in the main, drew respect.
One-time Champions League winner Edgaras Jankauskas, undoubtedly the most talented Lithuanian to play for Hearts, is now his country’s manager. A player who won Europe’s elite competition with Porto under Jose Mourinho in 2004, the 41-year-old is only in his second managerial job: his first at Vilnius-based club Trakai lasted seven months up until November 2014.
The one-time CSKA Moscow, Club Brugge, Real Sociedad, Benfica, and Nice player, who held a coaching role at Hearts under John McGlynn and then Gary Locke during the 2012/13 campaign, succeeded Igoris Pankratjevas last December and has presided over five matches.
“He always had an aura about him,” said Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson earlier this week after being asked about erstwhile team-mate Jankauskas.
“He is the best player Lithuania has ever produced so it was probably a natural progression for him to become the head coach eventually.”
Beaten by Russia 3-0 in his dugout debut in March, Lithuania, ranked 117th by FIFA, overcame Estonia 2-0 in a Baltic Cup match in May before being defeated 2-1 by Latvia days later. They then drew 0-0 with Poland as a warm-up match to their opening Group F match against Slovenia.
Lithuania are aggrieved they did not come away with all the spoils from last month’s match.
The squad, which does not have any players at prominent clubs, had led by two goals courtesy of captain Fiodor Cernych and Vykintas Slivka but the visitors responded with a strike from Rene Krhin and a 93rd-minute equaliser from Bostjan Cesar. “We fought heroically and we demonstrated that we can play football,” remarked Jankauskas.
The Lithuania head coach was a Scottish Cup winner with Hearts in 2006, but Scotland head coach Gordon Strachan will aim to ensure his visit to the national stadium weekend is less memorable.