YOU might expect Gary Locke’s allegiance to lie with his mentors Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown. And you’d be right. However, Hearts’ first-team coach wants the men who replaced them at Tynecastle – Paulo Sergio and his Portuguese assistants – to stay next season. Primarily because he feels they deserve to.
Hearts’ progress past Celtic into a historic all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final with Hibs is a real feather in the caps of Sergio and his compatriots, Sergio Cruz and Alberto Cabral.
All three are out of contract this summer having signed season-long deals when taking over from Jefferies and Brown last August. Initial talks on extending Sergio’s stay have already commenced, whilst Locke’s contract does not expire until June 2013, so he can at least count on some security.
Locke spoke to the Evening News to declare a wish for some stability within the club he has supported since childhood. Changing managers again at the end of the campaign would be unavoidable if Sergio chose to walk away of his own accord. Excepting that scenario, he hopes to see the Hearts board pull out the stops and retain the Iberian triumvirate whose popularity is steadily increasing.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, I think everybody would like to see them stay,” said Locke. “For everybody associated with the club, it would be good to get a bit of stability. But that isn’t for me to decide. I love working with the three of them – Paulo, Sergio and Cabral. They are great people to work for and hopefully that can continue.
“I’ve learned a lot under all the managers I’ve worked for, but under Paulo it’s completely different. A lot of the stuff is really good and I’m learning things every day, which is great. He’s got the players playing for him and you could see that on Sunday. When Celtic equalised, we could easily have buckled under the pressure. But the boys showed they’re playing for the jersey and playing for the manager. That’s all we can ask.”
Craig Beattie and Rudi Skacel were bestowed with praise after the semi-final having scored the crucial goals in a 2-1 win. Sergio, though, was the man orchestrating the performance. When big decisions needed to be made, he made them. None more so than introducing Beattie at half-time to swing the match in Hearts’ favour.
“I think the manager has to take a huge amount of credit,” continued Locke. “We had a gameplan on Sunday which worked a treat. He wasn’t happy at half-time because, when we got the ball, we kept giving it away. In terms of organisation and making it difficult for Celtic, I thought we were first-class. That’s what we worked on.
“We knew we would have to frustrate them. We weren’t always going to have all the play. We made the change at the right time bringing Beats on to give us something extra up front. At the start of the second half, I thought we thoroughly merited going in front.”
At full-time, the lifelong Jambo within Locke came rushing to the fore. Seeing Hearts win the game with Beattie’s penalty just moments after losing an equaliser brought the 36-year-old one of his greatest ever adrenalin rushes.
“I went from probably the biggest kick in the teeth I could ever get to the best feeling I’ve had in many years,” he smirked. “The fans, Paulo and the rest of the coaching staff went through the same. I think it just shows the character in the team that we won. We could easily have buckled when Hooper scored the equaliser but we kept the heads up and went forward again. I think it was the right decision to give us a penalty and Beattie stuck it away nicely.
“I think the character of this team has been underestimated. We know the characters we’ve got and the squad is very much together. We have had a few knocks this season but the players have shown they’re prepared to battle for the jersey. That’s all you can ask as a manager or coach. The players are working for us every week and we’ve been rewarded.
“The boys are absolutely buzzing now because we’ve gone through to Glasgow and beaten a very good Celtic side. They are the champions and, over the course, they’ve been the best team this season. Everybody is delighted with the result.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling for me. I’m just delighted for the fans that we have this final to look forward to. They would probably have been thinking the same as us when Celtic equalised late on. Years ago the same thing happened and we ended up losing 2-1, so I’m glad that never happened.”
Now comes a pleasant but nonetheless awkward challenge for Locke and his fellow coaches – attempting to stifle excitement over the first all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final for 116 years in order to succeed in the remaining league fixtures.
“We’ve told the players it’s great to get to the final but it’s a wee bit away yet,” he continued. “We’ve got five big games coming up in the league and it’s important we try to win as many of them as possible.
“Our aim at the start of the season was to finish as high in the league as possible. We’re two points behind St Johnstone and one behind Dundee United so it’s important we try to catch them. We’ve got five really big league games and, when they’re out of the way, everybody can look forward to the cup final.”