Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal laughs openly about being blessed with a large nose. That is no excuse for someone allegedly punching it, however. An overzealous Hibs supporter has been charged with striking Zlamal in the face during October’s Edinburgh derby and the 33-year-old is still shocked by the incident.
He left his native Czech Republic in June to sample the traditionally fervid British football atmosphere. Joining Hearts offered a chance to thrive on the passion of Scottish fans and enjoy an intense culture and rivalry far removed from his homeland. Being banged on the nose wasn’t the welcome he expected.
Zlamal jokes about the incident now but police arrested the alleged culprit and charged him with assault. It was an early eye-opener as to how passion can overspill into ugliness in his new home city.
Speaking at Hearts’ winter training base near the Spanish town of Murcia, Zlamal admitted he has never known anything in his career like that moment. “I enjoyed the derby, but what surprised me was how aggressive the fans were towards each other. There were a lot of bad words,” said the amiable keeper.
“I have never been in a situation like that. I was shocked. I just tried to stay calm and clapped them and said thank you. After it I just tried to concentrate on the game but it wasn’t easy. When we thought we had scored in the last minute I really wanted to turn and celebrate in front of the Hibs fans. Unfortunately, the goal was disallowed so I stayed quiet. So when we went to Easter Road and won there I celebrated a lot.”
The unsavoury aftertaste hasn’t soured Zlamal’s thoughts on Scottish football, thankfully. “This kind of thing has never happened before so I don’t know why it should happen now,” he continued. “But I have to say I like the Scottish culture, I like that everyone goes at 100 per cent, players and fans.
“Everyone is fighting for their own cause and I like that passion between rivals – as long as it is only about the football. We have good rivalries with Hibs and Rangers and Celtic. When Rangers and Celtic play each other many people in the Czech Republic watch the game because they are interested in the history. It’s similar with Hearts and Hibs. I like that.”
Zlamal is now concentrating on regaining his place in the Hearts team. He was dropped after the 5-0 humiliation at Livingston in December and replaced by his understudy, the Irishman Colin Doyle. “I have experience of this because it has happened to me before and my job is just to work hard and do my best,” said Zlamal. “The most important thing is the team is successful, not whether the manager plays Colin or me. Of course everybody wants to play but we are in a situation where I am not playing and I accept this. I have a really good relationship with Colin, he’s a really good guy. So it’s alright.
“Now I have added motivation to try to get back. I am still happy I can be part of things at Hearts. I like the fact I have new motivation to try to get back.”
Zlamal’s lighthearted message to Doyle via social media before last month’s trip to Easter Road was to wear a mouthguard. “I just told him to be careful with the Hibs fans. Sometimes I like to make jokes. I think the best way to reply to something like that is humour, not to say they are bad. It’s better to look on the positive side.”
Having beaten Hamilton and Hibs in the two games prior to the winter shutdown, Zlamal expects Hearts to grow stronger after signing his compatriot David Vanecek and the Irish defender Conor Shaughnessy.
“We were in a little bit of a crisis, but now I think we are back, especially after the Hibs game,” he said. “We are going to be stronger than before. David Vanecek is here and other guys are back from injury. So I think we will be better and I hope we can be successful.”