Shaggy is ready for the real deal
STEPHEN FRAIL knows the score only too well. Thrust into the limelight at Hearts midway through last season, he thrived during an initiation period none of his predecessors was permitted. Come Monday evening at Tynecastle, the goosebumps and adrenalin rush will reinforce a new reality: Now it's for real.
Pressure and expectation go hand in hand at Tynecastle since Vladimir Romanov and his entourage moved in, something Frail grew to realise during the spring. Helping Anatoli Korobochka stabilise the Tynecastle ship brought him public notoriety as Hearts began to resemble something like an organised, properly functioning football team again. The progress wasn't startling, more gradual following the departure of Valdas Ivanauskas, who had allowed Romanov to interfere in team selection almost at will.
The majority shareholder finally recognised Korobochka and Frail's efforts earlier this week by naming them as his permanent management team. With new contracts comes new pressure, but Frail refuses to shy away.
When Hearts kick off against Hibs on Monday, the assistant coach begins the most exciting season of his coaching career. No longer are he and Korobochka in charge on an interim basis, they can now expect the same intense scrutiny Romanov applied to people like Robertson, Burley, Rix and Ivanauskas. If the team's performances in the final quarter of last season are evidence of their productivity, there is cause for genuine hope over Frail and Korobochka's prospects. But no-one is under any illusions.
"We'll be judged more now," admits Frail. "You know what's in the brochure here and you get on with it. We can't make excuses because we know what it's all about now. The players know it and whoever comes in - whether it's coaches, players, physios, whatever - you need to get on with it. Hearts is a great club to work for and one that I want to be part of and make successful.
"The players we have makes the coaching side easy. I'm not saying last year was easy, but because we'd gone to the depths we fell to - the well-documented Dundee United game - it was easy for us if the players bought into our approach and came along with us. They did and we managed to harness a team spirit that has always been here but was missing for a spell before that.
"Speaking personally, this is my biggest season as a coach."
Perhaps the most awkward challenge facing the newly-confirmed management team is how to limit Romanov's influence on team affairs. Under Ivanauskas, changes from game to game would regularly exceed five, but with Frail's persuasive and dignified approach the situation seems to have been brought under moderate control.
"I think we got continuity of team selection towards the end of last season," he continues. "It's important, not only for results but for players to form relationships. We have a good defensive partnership with Zaliukas and Berra, and a couple of years ago it was Pressley, Webster, Neilson and Fyssas. That gives you a consistent base with Craig Gordon behind them. It's vital for strikers, too. You always hear about partnerships like Shearer and Sutton, Keegan and Toshack, Rush and Dalglish. Those guys were all on the same wavelength and that can't be underestimated. You might never get that level of understanding no matter how hard you try, but we have good individual strikers and I'd like to see more combination play from them this year.
"I'm confident Anatoli wants the same as me in that sense. Obviously there are horses for courses and we will use certain players against certain teams but, by and large, I would hope the team that starts can take us on a good run."
Steaming out the traps at the season's inception was central to the most successful campaign of the Romanov era to date. Under the aforementioned George Burley, Hearts overwhelmed almost all comers up to autumn 2005 and eventually secured second place and a coveted spot in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. Re-enacting that scenario would do Frail just fine.
"I think that's essential. You don't want to give Celtic or Rangers too much of a run on you, so it's important to start well," he says. "Winning breeds confidence as everyone saw under George and I think that's what eventually carried over the line when we finished second that season. We had enough in the bag and Rangers had too much ground to make up. We need to look at that and it's vital we do well in the early weeks.
"If I say our desired target is third place it doesn't indicate particularly great ambition. Obviously Europe has to be an aim this season and we want to do well in both cups, but we want to sustain a challenge in the league. I don't want to set targets too high by saying we will win it, but we must aspire to win it. We won't settle for finishing third.
"The home form did let us down last year when you look at it. The fans might get edgy at home but you can't lay the blame at their door. When the expectation level rises then you expect to win home games. Tynecastle was always a difficult place to come and we need to make it so again. A lot teams are going to Ibrox and Parkhead and putting up a show in a one-off game, but it's the other teams you have to beat on a regular basis.
"It's important to win this first game against Hibs and go from there and, of course, it gives our fans bragging rights. Last year we finished with two wins over Hibs and I want to make sure we start this campaign in the right manner. Already we could be playing catch-up with the other games being tomorrow and Sunday. Although it's only three points you want them in the bag."
The desire to foster a winning mentality has unified the Hearts squad beyond recognition since their fragmented existence back in March. Team spirit, and that word "bonding", have been buzz phrases around Riccarton for some time now, largely due to Frail's intervention. The former full-back has organised everything from days out and seating arrangements at dinner to innovative card games in his attempts to nourish squad morale. Now he wants to test all the ground work and get his best players operating at full capacity.
So what kind of football can Hearts supporters expect to witness in the season ahead?
"Get the ball down, be quick and exciting," opines Frail. "If it's on to go from back to front quickly then we'll do that but we have players in midfield like Kingston, Stewart and Palazuelos, who can play. We want to adopt a quick style of passing football that is exciting for the fans, but we'll also cut our cloth depending who we're playing and we won't be afraid to sit in.
"We went to Celtic Park and Easter Road towards the end of last season and contained our opponents and spoiled the game. We didn't go out and start kicking them or anything, we were simply organised and disciplined. We then beat Hibs at Tynecastle a few weeks later and the first half that day was as good as we've played. That's the style I want to see us playing."
Hearts differ from almost every other side in the country with their expansive collection of wingers. Saulius Mikoliunas, Deividas Cesnauskis and Mirsad Beslija are to challenge for the wide-right berth this season, whilst Andy Driver, Neil McCann and Audrius Ksanavicius fight it out on the left.
Frail goes on: "Wingers are a good tool and a good tactic. If you have pace and trickery out wide you can get boys down the flanks providing for those in the middle like Velicka or Pospisil. It's about service because these guys and others like Bednar, Pinilla and Makela can finish if they get the supply. Probably only Driver is a typical winger as the others like to come inside a bit, but width and pace are real assets in modern-day football. I heard Walter Smith say the other day he knows what his ideal team is. I know what mine would be and it's important we get them all on the pitch as well as making sure everyone else feels part of things. The squad has to be used properly and kept up to speed, playing reserve games and such like, because you never know when they'll be needed. If you get the atmosphere right every player should be bursting to get in the team."
It's precisely what Frail wants from Hearts: Desire, hunger and fight. You can sense his anticipation for the forthcoming season simply by listening to him speak about it.
"Last season was great for me and I enjoyed every minute of it. Now I'm really excited. I want to continue from last year and hopefully it will culminate in success at the end of the season. That would be fantastic to be involved in."
He likes a laugh and doesn't mind the pressure which accompanies his new permanent job title at Tynecastle. When it comes to football, and Hearts in particular, Shaggy's certainly got a scooby.
Manager: Anatoli Korobochka.
Last season: Finished fourth.
Title Odds: 25/1.
Odds without Old Firm: 11/10.
Transfers in: Larry Kingston (Terek Grozny, 500,000), Ruben Palazuelos (Gimnastic, free), Michael Stewart (free), Mauricio Pinilla (loan ended), Ricardas Beniusis (FBK Kaunas, loan), Audrius Ksanavicius (FBK Kaunas, loan), Matej Rapnik (undisclosed).
Transfers out: Julien Brellier (free), Edgaras Jankauskas (free), Takis Fyssas (free), Nerijus Barasa (loan not renewed), Jamie MacDonald (Queen of the South, loan), Marco Pelosi (Raith Rovers, loan), John Armstrong (Cowdenbeath, loan), David Armstrong (Cowdenbeath, loan), Craig Sives (Dundee, loan).
Key Man: If they can keep the midfielder's suitors at bay, Larry Kingston will provide match-winning qualities which could make the difference between a decent and an outstanding campaign for Hearts. The talismanic Ghanaian ended last season in frightening form which, if reproduced, will be virtually impossible for any SPL counterpart to live with. He is likely to miss the opening three league games through suspension but is guaranteed to be handed a pivotal role upon his return. Equally important could be the recent arrival of Spanish midfielder Ruben Palazuelos, who replaces Julien Brellier in the holding midfield role. Palazuelos' grit and vision are an essential combination for any defensive midfielder and he is expected to bring sound balance to the side.
Barry Anderson's verdict: This season will be a defining one for many concerning Vladimir Romanov's stewardship of Hearts. Finishing second and splitting the Old Firm is definitely within the club's capabilities, but much depends on the level of influence from above. Romanov deserves enormous credit for growing and expanding Hearts off the field with commercial and marketing activities that have raised the club's profile beyond recognition. However, his team didn't quite deliver as intended last season during what evolved as a period of transition.
Most of the disappointment at finishing fourth came as a result of an exceedingly productive first campaign under the Lithuanian-based businessman, when Hearts qualified for the Champions League qualifiers and won the Scottish Cup. Stability will be the key issue this time, both in terms of management and team selection, particularly without the distraction of European football.
The players are delighted that the management team of Anatoli Korobochka and Stephen Frail have remained in place and that Eduard Malofeev has finally left. The addition of Bulgarian coach Angel Chervenkov from FBK Kaunas should ensure a fresh approach to complement practices already in place.
The squad will now set about tackling a season-opening Edinburgh derby against Hibs on Monday in the knowledge that a prosperous start is usually a vital ingredient for a successful league campaign. Romanov, as always, will be up for the challenge. He demands a similar attitude from players who must now apply themselves accordingly. If they do, and if turmoil, upheaval and squad rotation are all kept to a minimum, there could be one or two noses out of joint in Glasgow come next May.
• Home games in bold
August 6: Hibs
August 12: Aberdeen
August 18: Gretna
August 25: Celtic
September 3: Motherwell
September 15: Rangers
September 22: Inverness CT
September 29: St Mirren
October 6: Falkirk
October 20: Dundee Utd
October 27: Kilmarnock
November 4: Hibs
November 10: Aberdeen
November 24: Gretna
December 1: Celtic
December 8: Motherwell
December 15: Rangers
December 22: Inverness CT
December 26: St Mirren
December 29: Falkirk
January 2: Dundee Utd
January 5: Kilmarnock
January 19: Hibs
January 26: Aberdeen
February 9: Gretna
February 16: Celtic
February 23: Motherwell
February 27: Rangers
March 1: Inverness CT
March 15: St Mirren
March 22: Falkirk
March 29: Dundee Utd
April 5: Kilmarnock
• Final five fixtures to be decided after split
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west