The tongue was placed only slightly inside the Hearts skipper’s cheek after helping make the draw for the first round of the up-coming season’s William Hill Scottish Cup, which kicks off next month. He knows many have predicted a tough campaign for the Tynecastle club who, in Scottish football’s new economic climate, have ben cutting their cloth accordingly.
Hearts’ debt issues weigh as heavily as ever given Rangers’ plummet to the Third Division, but the displacement of top earners with promising youngsters has at least eased the financial pressure that comes from having to cover a significant wage bill each month.
The new Hearts are defined by the likes of Callum Paterson, Kevin McHattie, Jason Holt and Denis Prychynenko, although it would be wrong to present them as a side brought to its knees by austerity measures. John Sutton, for example, has returned, while Scottish Cup-winning players of the quality of Andy Driver, Andy Webster, Darren Barr, Danny Grainger and Ryan McGowan remain. What can’t be denied is the change in the squad’s age profile. “When I was 22, I was one of the youngest but now 22 years old is the age of most of the starting line-up,” said Zaliukas yesterday.
“It’s a very young squad, but I think it’s good for everyone. We have a couple of senior players who are trying to help them and these young boys are also pushing us in return. Team spirit is very good. We are all very friendly in the dressing-room and that will probably help us. Our target is probably still to get both cups and maximum results in the league.
“It’s going to be very hard this season. Everyone wants second place, but we’re ready for that challenge and we’ll work hard. Why can’t we achieve? The youngsters want to prove everyone wrong who are writing us off and I think it will be quite a good season for us.”
Hearts have remained at home while they prepare for the start of the league season, although they have crossed the Forth Road Bridge twice, defeating Raith Rovers in Laurie Ellis’ testimonial match and then overcoming Dunfermline on Saturday. It is all a bit different to last summer’s trip to Tuscany. “I actually spoke to [former Hearts manager] Jim Jefferies when we played Dunfermline and he told me it was about 50 degrees in Italy, so I’m quite happy to be training here,” said Zaliukas.
John McGlynn, cup-winning manager Paulo Sergio’s successor, has made a favourable impression on the players. “The gaffer is reasonable all the time, he is always talking to everyone and he is coming to say ‘hi’ to everyone personally,” said Zaliukas. “We’re in a good way.”
Zaliukas shrugged when asked about Sergio’s departure, revealing that he has not heard from him since. “I think everyone was expecting that with all the rumours before the final,” he said. “It was the club’s decision and it was sad to hear that. We got a good result in the last game of the season, but it’s football.”
Sutton’s return from loan at Central Coast Mariners in Australia has given McGlynn some much-needed presence in attack, while McGowan has been re-deployed just behind the Englishman. But much will still rest on Sutton’s shoulders.
“He is now our main striker and is working hard in training,” reported Zaliukas. “Everything goes through him and I think he is delighted with that. His ball retention is good. He will get more confidence in his performances and I hope he at least gets double figures in goals.”
Hearts will be without Ian Black, their outstanding player of last season. Zaliukas admitted some “surprise” that the midfielder was considering Third Division football with Rangers, having starred in the Scottish Cup final just a few weeks ago.
“It’s his life and he does what he thinks is best for him and his family and I wish him all the best,” he said. “I was expecting him to go to England. But we can see what is happening with the crisis in football, the economics. I hope he finds a good club.”
The absence of Rangers means Hearts could be seen as Celtic’s main rivals this season, certainly in light of their recent results against the Parkhead side. But Zaliukas is adamant about one thing: Hibernian remain the principal foe. He has watched highlights of May’s Scottish Cup win and it still makes him “emotional”, he revealed.
“I am waiting for that first derby of the season and I think it will be impressive from a fan’s point of view,” he said. “I heard that they [Hibs] are doing some good stuff and we want to make sure it’s 12 games [undefeated] in a row. I have not watched the entire [cup final] game yet, but I will – definitely.”