So it’s Lithuania again. One of those tricky, niggly, upstart places which, since emerging all perky and independent out of old Mother Russia, has made it difficult for us to retain the role of the brave ’n’ bonnie little guy on football’s world stage.
It’s back to Vilnius where maybe Scotland haven’t lost before but they’ve certainly slumped to defeat in Kaunas, the second city, and so have Rangers. Before the country became an impediment and an irritant, however, half of Edinburgh was wildly in love with Lithuania. “It’s Heart of Mid-Lithuania!” proclaimed the tabloid headlines at the dawn of the Vladimir Romanov era 12 years ago. Every time there’s a game to be played in Lithuania I think back to that incredible juncture in Hearts’ history, and even more so this time round. Steven Pressley and Paul Hartley have been bidding to become the Tynecastle manager and both were big figures in the dressing-room back then. Also the other day I walked past what used to be the vodka bar Da-Da-Da! and the memories just spilled out.
The howff rates as more than just a footnote in the whole amazing saga. It was run by men who’d help make the introductions between Hearts and Romanov. One had got to know Romanov from exploiting the new freedoms in Lithuania by opening a chain of pubs in the country; the other was a Jambos-supporting city councillor. At first glance there maybe wasn’t much that confirmed Da-Da-Da! as a Lithuanian theme bar beyond the fact the walls were painted deep red, although given it was the only one we’d ever been inside, how could we tell? But the barmaids were definitely Lithuanian, and definitely beautiful. And two of the guys we used to see in there were definitely Lithuanian – Saulius Mikoliunas and Deividas Cesnauskis.
Miko and Chesney maybe weren’t the best Lithuanians who played for Hearts although they certainly were far from the worst – but they were the first. Their cool hair was much admired and likened to that of the Gallagher brothers out of Oasis. I preferred to think of them as Baltic moptops – Paul McCartnaus and George Harrisonikas.
What was I do-do-doing in Da-da-da!? Supporting Hearts, or trying to. For a book. This was season 2004-5, the time of enforced decampment to Murrayfield (much like now), John Robertson booting the Ferencvaros manager up the bum, Hearts fans booing a minute’s silence for Pope John Paul II. Plenty of drama and intrigue there, and thank goodness I didn’t choose the following season for this crackpot experiment, given all the thrashings Hearts doled out to my team and the fact they went on to win the Scottish Cup.
In 04-05 Hearts were desperate for something, anything, a bit of glamour, someone in charge whose nickname wasn’t “The Pieman”. A former sub-mariner who’d cut his teeth in business flogging bootleg Elvis records from the back of a taxi was a surprise, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
Where, though, was Lithuania exactly? For our next night out at Da-da-da!, I brought along a gazetteer of the newly redrawn Europe so we could attempt to find out. We read about the bonkers theme park known as Stalin World. This was where old statues from the Soviet era came to languish – Stalin, Lenin and Marx, a dream strikeforce for some. While other former Soviet republics tried to forget about Communism, Lithuania had chosen to confront its past head-on, and with humour.
Visitors to Stalin World are marched into a bunker by “actors” – though some are ex-KGB – with snarling dogs. There they’re interrogated for three hours and forced to sign false confessions to imagined crimes. “Could that be worse than an away-day at Ibrox?” wondered Ricky, one of my new best Jambo buddies.
After Stalin was shunted off to a damp forest, Vilnius raised a statue to Frank Zappa, pictured – another reason to admire Lithuania as far as I was concerned. Even if Ricky, Billy and the rest didn’t altogether share my enthusiasm for the way-out weird rock controversialist, we were all agreed: Lithuania was intriguing. Miko was first to get a game in maroon and young fans waved red, yellow and blue flags as he dribbled down the left wing. Some of their dads were just as welcoming and in tribute to Romanov turned up in Cossack-style hats. In Da-da-da! we didn’t go as far as smashing our vodka tumblers in the fireplace – mainly because it didn’t have a fireplace.
These were the innocent early days of Heart of Mid-Lithuania, best summed up by Chesney’s goal at Hampden in the Pontiff-bashing game. It was a stupendous strike but Hearts still ended up losing. Thus, there was optimism for the future under Romanov punctuated by the deranged cackle of the possibly-doomed. No one knew how it was going to pan out. No one could predict there would be cups but also chaos the likes of which Gorgie had never seen.
Among my chums, Billy was the most senior, and therefore had witnessed many more lows in the club’s recent past than the others, and only the occasional high. Maybe this explained why he was most enthusiastic about the Lithuanian revolution and its romantic possibilities. Then again, that might have been something to do with the barmaids.
Those Da-da-da! nights could get quite confessional, not least when Billy told us he’d had a few Eastern European girlfriends in his time, with one in particular being a “fling” in every sense. “I paid this bird to wrestle me,” he said matter-of-factly. You did what? “Found her on the internet, booked a hotel room. She’d trained some of the competitors in World’s Strongest Woman.” There was no answer to that, other than: “Er, who are we playing on Saturday? … ”
Will Hearts ever build their own version of Stalin World? Perhaps a strange kind of tribute to the Lithuanian era seems unlikely but football, as we know, is gloriously unpredictable. And after all in Vilnius the rationale for installing the statue of Zappa after Stalin had been carted off went like this: “We were desperate to find a symbol that would mark the end of Communism, but at the same time express that it wasn’t all doom and gloom.”