Interview: Csaba Laszlo, former Hearts manager

Laszlo enjoyed a good rapport with Tynecastle fans. Picture: Jane Barlow
Laszlo enjoyed a good rapport with Tynecastle fans. Picture: Jane Barlow
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A QUICK chat with Csaba Laszlo. That was the brief, but it’s not really happening, because, as everyone who has met him knows, Csaba doesn’t do quick chats.

He talks speedily enough, but he does like to dwell on a theme. It’s an aspect of his character that was cruelly parodied a couple of Hogmanays ago in an Only An Excuse sketch in which someone walking past the then Hearts manager was daft enough to ask him the time. Csaba began to answer, continued to answer, went on and on with his answer . . . . until eventually the camera panned back to his questioner, who had turned into a skeleton.

That’s the down side of his garrulousness, but the positive aspect of it – and it’s a big positive – is its origin in an unquenchable enthusiasm. He loves football: can’t get enough of it. He loves people, especially the naturally optimistic ones.

And he loves Edinburgh, which is why he is still here, in a cafe in Tollcross, talking about everything from Berti Vogts to Vikings, when he could be in Vilnius, discussing his new concern, the fortunes of the Lithuanian national team. The 48-year-old was appointed to his new job in the Baltic nation last month, and he will spend as much time as necessary there, but home for him, his wife and their two daughters will remain here in Edinburgh, where they have lived since he became Hearts manager in the summer of 2008.

“It’s not a big problem,” he says of the unusual commute to which he has committed himself. “For the first time, my family will be staying here. I feel comfortable here in Scotland, and especially in Edinburgh. If you’re the coach of a national team you have a little bit more time than a club coach.

“We’ve found our second home here in Scotland. I think I did a good job here and the people appreciate that I am here.

“In my last job, at Charleroi in Belgium, I was there for seven months without my family. It was difficult.

“Our daughters are settled at school here and enjoy living in Scotland. My elder daughter has one more year at school and wants to study law at a Scottish university.

“We’ve been here four years now and they enjoy it. It can be good for your children to move around with their father and learn new languages and experience other cultures, but at this time it is better for them to stay. Football has a very special place in my heart, but family is first.”

Laszlo and Hearts first crossed paths when he brought his Ferencvaros team to Murrayfield for a Uefa Cup tie in December 2004. That was before Vladimir Romanov had officially taken over at Tynecastle, but the Kaunas-based businessman must have remembered the Hungarian, because after one particularly gruelling season in which Anatoly Korobochka was in charge for the first half and Stephen Frail for the second, he gave Laszlo the job in time for the start of the 2008-09 campaign.

The new man was a breath of fresh air in that first season, and although things went stale during the following campaign, there were extenuating factors such as the inability to acquire a first-rate striker. When he was sacked and replaced by Jim Jefferies at the end of January 2010 he was surprised and disappointed, but by no means enraged. The affection he had acquired for Hearts did not evaporate, and nor did his liking for Edinburgh. Two years on, his love of club and capital is undiminished.

“The history is fantastic,” he says when asked what it is about the city he finds so appealing. “I enjoy every stone in Edinburgh, all the buildings.

“This country is very lucky that it hasn’t had a war – I think the last big one was with England or maybe the Vikings. You don’t find these buildings in Europe. In Europe everything was destroyed twice, maybe three times.

“For my family it’s also a very nice place. Budapest is our first home, but when you find a second home, as we have here, you don’t think about the first. Edinburgh is a very open town. You have a lot of young people, a lot of culture, history – a modern lifestyle.

“I have been in so many places, but Edinburgh has impressed me because it’s not a huge city but the people can enjoy their life. I try also to enjoy my life and be a part of the town.”

He is still a part of Scottish football too. At first some of the more conservative elements in the game were sceptical about this quirky man from eastern Europe, but the fans took to him quickly, and not only Hearts fans either. He is still pleasantly surprised by the number of football supporters who greet him warmly in the street, in a cafe like this one, or at a ground, and regards it as appreciation of the novel exuberance he brought to a game in which still too many managers take themselves far too seriously.

“If I go in the Hibs stadium, or to Celtic or Rangers or Aberdeen, the supporters are very kind. I was the Hearts manager, but they don’t see me as the enemy or even as an opponent. We have a good relationship.

“Most people say ‘Hey, look, this is the Csaba Laszlo. How are you? Hey, you must come back to Scottish football’.

“I think in my favour is I brought something new to Scottish football – a new face, a new mentality. If you are popular you can use this in a positive way.

“It’s nice when I go out and people recognise me and talk with me very kindly. If you can’t laugh in a day, for me it’s a losing day. Especially in Scotland, because of the weather, you need a sense of humour.

“I don’t know why, but you don’t see so many foreign managers in Scottish football who left something behind. When I came here to Edinburgh it was from Uganda, and I saw a lot of sceptical faces: You’re going to be Hearts manager and you were coach of the Uganda national team? What are you doing in the SPL, in our fantastic league? For them Uganda was not something special – it wasn’t like I was coming from Bayern Munich or Inter Milan.

“But after a little focused work I tried to get the players to believe in what we do, and the fans and the media, and after came the results. We changed people’s minds very quickly. Everybody was more open to me, the chairmen, the other managers. I also had a very good relationship with the owner and this is also important.”

Laszlo does not pretend that his relationship with Romanov was perfect – far from it – but he is not one to air his complaints in public. While he felt he deserved longer at Hearts, he is still grateful to the owner for giving him the chance to manage the club in the first place – a chance which he thinks many Scottish club chairmen would not have dared offer him.

“Berti Vogts was here, Paul Le Guen – I think a lot of managers who have come to Scotland from abroad have not been successful, so most chairmen try to get someone with experience of Scotland. I think some are a little bit scared to take a foreign manager, especially one who has not played or managed in Scotland or England before.

“I had only been in Scotland twice before, and it came out ‘This guy is not so stupid. He knows something about football and is very friendly and kind and tries to accept us. He’s not a professor who says he knows everything about football.’

“Even today, I have a good relationship with Mr Romanov. We never had a huge problem: we always had a very fair and sometimes hard discussion about the team. We discussed it like any other owner with his manager. He brings the money: managers are also employees like players, and you must respect the owner.

“I was the longest-serving manager in the seven years he owned the club. I don’t think he sacked me just because of the results.

“We were in the League Cup semi-final, I think we were in fourth place, and in seven games in a row we didn’t lose. The middle of the week was a defeat, but the team was going in the right direction.

“But you know, if the owner says it is time to change, you must accept it. If you are a football manager, you must know it can happen any time.

“In football or in any other industry, I don’t think you must talk badly about your ex-club. It is very important that we can talk about things.

“I am not angry. I was disappointed when I was sacked. You think ‘Why?’ and ask ‘What have I done wrong?’. This is human. But you must close and look for the next possibility.

“You know, sometimes it is better to be sacked when you are in a good position. This was the situation.

“I go very often to Hearts. I have a good relationship with Mr Fedotovas [Hearts director Sergejus Fedotovas] too. Why should we be angry with each other? We had a nice time. We weren’t relegated, we got third place and were in the Europa League, everything was okay.

“Afterwards I got a job in Charleroi, now I’ve got a job in Lithuania, and I think Hearts helped me, because they gave me the chance to come to Edinburgh. I must take the positives – why take the negatives?

“I think very positive and for this reason I can smile. For me Hearts was a fantastic experiment and experience.”

His job was fantastic, the supporters were and are great, and the city he lives in is splendid. So life is good for Laszlo, a man who in any case always finds it easy to accentuate the positive. Yet although he prefers to withhold criticism of his adoptive country, when pressed he does admit that, yes, there are one or two things wrong with Scotland – or rather, with Scottish football. Above all, he thinks there is simply too much negativity.

If there is a problem there, he reckons, by all means address it. But don’t dwell on it to the extent that you don’t leave yourself time to look for a solution. And don’t waste your time indulging in self-pity.

“I don’t like to see boring people,” he explains. “I like people around me who have interest, who enjoy their life. I am interested in the positive way.

“I know people who are multi-millionaires but they can’t enjoy their lives. It’s not a question of money. That is the real insight.

“In Scottish football there is a lot of talk ‘We don’t have money’. I don’t like people who talk just about problems and no solution.

“Okay, problems are always there, but we must also have ideas about a solution. If you always don’t have money, what is your next step?

“Make money. You have an instrument to do that and it is football.

“Football doesn’t have any competition in this country. A little bit rugby, and maybe a one-man show in tennis with Andy Murray, but everyone else loves football. So in my eyes Scotland must be in the top ten for countries who produce players, because all the children play football.

“If I meet a small guy in the street who asks for an autograph and I ask him what he would like to be, he always says ‘A football player’. Ninety-nine per cent say that, girls as well.”

And with that, finally, he’s had enough, and is off to pick up his daughters from school. We’ve had a chat all right, not a quick one but one that has lasted for almost two hours. It has been exhausting trying to keep up with his mind as it flits from one topic to another, but also inspiring.

Inspiring because of the sheer vitality he brings to every subject he addresses, because he has come to love our country for all its faults, and because he has a real insight into football and how to play it.

Or, as he puts it himself in his parting shot, and a rare moment of brevity: “Sometimes I talk too much. But I know what I’m talking about.”