Rudi Skacel’s youth fear for Hearts

RUDI Skacel has warned Hearts against relying too heavily on youth next season as the Tynecastle club prepare to begin a new era of self-sufficiency.

The midfielder looked on from the bench as 19-year-old Jason Holt scored on his full debut for the club last weekend against St Johnstone. Manager Paulo Sergio has stressed that he will not be afraid to blood more youngsters before the campaign is out, in preparation for a season when owner Vladimir Romanov has promised fans that they will have the opportunity “to see some of the best young players in the country competing for a place in the Hearts first team”.

Skacel, however, has indicated there should be some pause for thought. He used the example of his experience at Southampton, the club he joined in 2006 after his first spell at Tynecastle. The south-coast club were quickly relegated from the English top tier for the first time in 27 years and, unthinkably, they were demoted from the Championship to League One in 2009, after their own money troubles meant having to rely on several inexperienced youngsters. In Skacel’s view, it was too great a burden to place on the shoulders of so many young players. He has advised a more gradual revolution.

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“We have a few very good youngsters who, hopefully, have good futures ahead of both themselves and the club,” he said. “But they need time. Football is not about putting 11 older players together or 11 younger players.

“You need to get the right mix of experienced players, good players, fast players, young players. It’s very difficult to build up a young team. A lot of the youngsters have bright futures but you have to take it step by step and work hard with them.

“But you definitely can’t put five or six youngsters in and think everything will be OK, and you’ll be fighting for the title. You have to put one or two in and slowly integrate them because youngsters are always inconsistent.

“When I was at Southampton, for example, they were relegated when they tried to play too many youngsters so I know from experience that you need a mix of kids, international players and experienced players.

“You see, now, Southampton are on a great run and have a lot of young boys but they’re getting help. Gareth Bale was there when I was there and we still got relegated, so that shows you.”

Skacel knows the value of having senior figures in the team and was himself guided through his breakthrough seasons by top-class professionals. At Slavia Prague there was Pavel Kuka, who had played in the Bundesliga with Kaiserslautern and VfB Stuttgart, and played 63 times for Czech Republic, including in the final of Euro 96 against Germany. Jan Suchoparek, another veteran of the Euro 96 campaign when Czech Republic finished runners-up, also helped the young Skacel learn the ropes.

“We had three or four players like that who were international players and five or six of us played for the Under-21s so it was a great mix of experience and youth, which I think is the best way for success.

“But I am only a player and this is my opinion. It’s not up to me what road the club chooses to go down. I just hope Hearts are successful. Everything is about money so it doesn’t matter if I say this is the best way because football, unfortunately, is about money.”

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Skacel is aware that romance and sentiment will not likely play a part in whether he himself stays on to help the youngsters blend into the first team at Tynecastle. Even though he has more than justified the decision to hand him two six-month contracts since last summer, the 32-year-old is alert to the change in strategy at Tynecastle. “I don’t know if I will be at Hearts to guide these youngsters,” said Skacel, who has scored 11 goals this season.

“I don’t want to speak about my future. Now is about focusing on finishing the season in the right manner and making sure we get a European place.”

That fight continues today at Tynecastle against Aberdeen, with Hearts on the verge of their first objective, which is to secure a top-six place.

Skacel is determined to think only of the next few weeks at his club, and what could be an emotional send-off at the Scottish Cup final in May. And then, who knows? He isn’t optimistic about his chances of emulating his mentors Suchoparek and Kuka this summer by playing in the European Championships, having remained on the bench at Euro 2008.

“I have tried in the last couple of years but have never been a big part of the team,” said Skacel, who has won seven caps to date.

“It’s not important to me. I want to focus on Hearts and make sure we finish the season well. These next seven weeks are important and I want to be clear in my mind that I did everything to help the club and then we can talk about the past, the future and Euro 2012 – although I have practically given up on the national team.”