Paulo Sergio urges Craig Levein to put his trust in Hearts’ youth
Paulo Sergio walked under the cover of darkness on Sunday night, the way he prefers it when he returns to Edinburgh. Like a character in a film noir with the collar of his jacket upturned and cigarette smoke billowing, few might immediately recognise him as the last Hearts manager to win the Scottish Cup.
Fresh from an assignment in Iran, the 51-year-old adventurer has some stories to tell. It is easy to imagine the easy-going Sergio telling them in some late-night grog house off the Royal Mile.
Back in the capital for a promotional visit, he has some advice to impart to the current Hearts manager. Craig Levein might ignore this wisdom at his peril ahead of Saturday’s clash with Celtic at Hampden Park.
Sergio did after all inspire Hearts to a Scottish Cup victory over the Parkhead side in 2012 en route to winning the final with a 5-1 thrashing of Hibernian.
It was, he says, in effect “two finals”.
In a season when players – and manager – went unpaid, Hearts were not expected to defeat Celtic then, as now, under Neil Lennon’s charge. But they did, courtesy of a late Craig Beattie penalty, memorably marked by the scorer doing a half-naked celebratory dash behind the goal. What happened in the final a few weeks later has gone down in history.
Sergio’s strategy for Hearts beating Celtic this weekend is simple: press high and do not be tempted to pick players who are unfit. It’s feared Hearts have several of them. Steven Naismith is almost guaranteed to be missing, while Uche Ikpeazu, Arnaud Djoum, Peter Haring and Olly Lee, who limped off in Sunday’s 2-1 league defeat by Celtic, all face late fitness tests.
Sergio is adamant that if anyone is not 100 per cent fit they should not be on the pitch. It would be especially foolish to risk players in Hearts’ case since there are so many talented youngsters in the ranks ready and willing to step up. According to Sergio, what they provide in terms energy should trump concerns about lack of experience.
He still watches Hearts matches from abroad and saw Sunday’s clash, when Levein fielded three teenagers – Andy Irving, Connor Smith and Aaron Hickey. Harry Cochrane, 18, would have played but fell ill prior to the game.
“I’ve seen a few games, including the last two,” said Sergio. “Also, I didn’t like at all the performance against Aberdeen. On Sunday they were more… collective.
“Some important players were missing on Sunday but what I like more is some young players showing that they are maybe ready for the fight. Maybe they are hungry and have a huge chance to prove themselves.
“You can have a very good player but if he doesn’t play for the last three or four weeks maybe their fitness does not help the team. It’s a game where everybody has to run their socks off and put everything into it. Rather than having a ‘name’ on the pitch, maybe it’s better to have someone that can run in my opinion.
“The other team might be good technically but they do not have three legs, so they should not run more than us,” he added. “The better the opponent, the more you have to press them and make them feel uncomfortable in the game. If you allow Celtic to pass and move the ball, one moment or another they will create a chance and score. It’s a good opportunity for Hearts to press them a little higher, try to make them uncomfortable on the ball.”
Sergio will watch the final from Portugal, where he has returned for the summer after an interesting season in Iran with Sanat Naft, a club based in Abadan, near the Iraq border. They finished in mid-table in the Persian Gulf Pro league having won five of their last six matches. “I have finished my season a week ago in Iran and am looking at some options,” he said.
“I have the chance of things coming up in Iran, with my current club and also with some others.
“So I will look at it over the next few days and make a decision.
“The job I have been doing was one of the hardest jobs I have had until now because when I arrived the situation was different than it is now. Once I went there, Mr Trump put his sanctions on and that made the dollar value go down.
“That has made it hard for the football clubs, especially bringing in foreign players. Some players wanted to leave the club because of the problems, so it was difficult.
“Iran is a huge country and there is a lot of talent there, the players there have the right mentality,” he added.
“I have found them to be strong, very good technically and they are not expensive. I think if they get the infrastructure there correct then in the future Iran could be a big player in world football.”
l Paulo Sergio was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.