Interview: Csaba Laszlo on secret of fighting back from adversity

Current Dundee United manager and former Hearts boss Csaba Laszlo. Picture: Jane Barlow
Current Dundee United manager and former Hearts boss Csaba Laszlo. Picture: Jane Barlow
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The city of Dundee is justly,
jingoistically and jubilantly famous for jute, jam and journalism but now there’s something else: the “Jings! Crivvens! Help ma boab!”-rated hammering of Dundee United by Falkirk last Saturday which has sent the tangerine half of Tayside into deep despair.

But, as astonishing as that 6-1 thrashing was, I am equally flabbergasted to find myself walking along gloomy streets to a hotel rendezvous with the man who must carry the can – or rather the Oor Wullie-sized bucket – for it.

I didn’t think Csaba Laszlo would talk. I thought he’d find any excuse to be “unavailable” all week. He would do the needful, quick preview of the Arabs’ next match but there was no way he would be prepared to sit down for an extended conversation. The list being compiled in my head of managers who would dive for cover after such a scoreline was lengthy indeed.

But this is Csaba Laszlo and he loves to talk. He could talk for Transylvania, the motherland. He could talk for Hungary, the country on his passport. He could talk for Romania, the place of his formative years learning about history and pride. He used to talk for Hearts, forcing the last of the pressmen trusting their shorthand implicitly to admit defeat and invest in voice-recorders… once blethering post-match for 33 minutes, which is about 30 minutes longer than the Scottish average, and yet answering only five questions… once setting an all-comers’ record of 12 minutes for a single reply. And now, even after a Westfield horror show to rival anything nightmared up by Transylvania’s most notorious inhabitant, Count Dracula, he talks for Dundee United.

There’s a heavy-lidded smile when I compliment him for showing face, even if it’s under the cloak of darkness. “It’s part of the job,” he says. “Nobody wants to lose, especially 6-1. We have to show ourselves and meet the truth. This is not a nightmare, this is reality. We all know we made a mistake – me also – so it’s very important that in the next game we go out and prove that we can do also better.”

That next game comes today at Dunfermline, where United, in their urgent quest to return to the Premiership, 
simply cannot lose any more ground to St Mirren, who lead the second tier by six points, albeit having played a game more than Laszlo’s men.

The 53-year-old admits the thrashing knocked him for six. “Celtic are the best team in Scotland. If I took Dundee United there maybe we would lose, but not like this. With all respect to Falkirk, it was a giant shock.” The result would get even more shocking three days later. “I was so angry that I said to the players: ‘Look, boys, if Falkirk also win their next game, for instance 4-1, then you could say they are a team in fantastic form. But look what happened! They lost their next game 4-1!”

A freak result, perhaps, but one that stays in the United record books and stains them. All week, long-time Tannadice observers have been wondering how it rates for ignominy in the club’s history with the Dundee-based Courier concluding that you have to go all the way back to 1958-59 and two pummellings by Cowdenbeath (6-0 and 6-1) and one by Berwick Rangers (8-2) to find anything quite so horrible.

Laszlo has bought me a coffee and himself a big pot of tea but he doesn’t touch it during our 90 minutes together, at the end of which he will say: “Short interview, yes?” He talks and he talks – a surprising amount about the Falkirk debacle, even to the extent of making a 6-1 joke. Later (much later) we’re discussing the jobs he might have got after being pushed out of Tynecastle’s revolving door by the dread hand of Vladimir Romanov, one of which was Hibernian. The post ultimately went to Pat Fenlon who, six months later, was presiding over the worst result in Hibee history. Just think, I say, he could have been on the end of a 5-1 Scottish Cup final hiding by the Jambos. “No, never,” he says. “I would have lost 6-1!”

The Tannadice constituency shouldn’t assume, however, that this clattering setback for the team’s efforts to escape the Championship didn’t hurt their boss of just two months. When I mention it might be United’s most gruesome result for almost 60 years he says quietly: “Yes, it’s embarrassing.” Considering chairmen he has known – considering Vlad the Madder – I’m wondering about 
Laszlo’s relationship with Stephen Thompson and how his new supremo reacted. “My chairman was not happy but I must say we had a correct conversation. He cares for his club and this was very painful. It was important that he made it clear to me, to everyone: this is not how Dundee United can be.”

Analysing the game some more with his blunt, quirky and charming utilisation of the English language, Laszlo concludes that, after ending the first half only 2-1 down, a situation which was certainly salvageable, his players proceeded to turn in a performance which was “fantastic bad”. How fantastic bad was the final outcome in the context of Laszlo’s nomadic career? “Oh this was the baddest for ever. Before I don’t lose any more than, let’s say, three goals. You try to forget a result like that but it will fill up all your days. Usually [after a bad defeat] I don’t go to drink. Usually I don’t go to take the cigarettes. But the thing I have to do after six to one is move out – I have to go for a run. Let me tell you my friend that on Saturday night I went for a very long run.”

In his career, in his life, Laszlo, who was briefly a Jambo folk-hero, has been almost permanently on the move. He was born to Hungarian parents in Odorheiu Secuiesc, one of the historic centres of Szekelyland. Any decent-sized conversation with Laszlo – and this seems to be pretty much all of them – will include a chapter on his origins of which he’s hugely proud, the Szekelys having been valiant Middle Ages defenders of old Hungary against the Ottomans.

He grew up under the fierce stringencies of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romanian tyranny – electricity for just four hours a day, queueing with coupons for a rationed half-kilo of oil – until his defection to West Germany with a tourist visa to start a new life with an uncle.

After his own playing career was cut short by the failure of an eighth operation to right his jiggered knee, Laszlo drove in an entirely different direction as a marketing man for Ford until Borussia Moenchengladbach offered him the chance to coach kids. He managed Ferencvaros, brought the team formerly always referred to as “crack Hungarians” to Edinburgh to play Hearts in the Europa League, and was summarily booted up the backside by then Gorgie boss John Robertson. How the world turns: Robbo and Csaba will reconvene on a touchline in three weeks’ time when our man takes United to Inverness. “The shoe of the record Jambo goals from history,” he laughs. “We 
are friends now and I look forward to seeing him again.”

Nor after that strange night at temporary Murrayfield could Laszlo have envisaged becoming one of the many who came after Robertson at Hearts, with Romanov growing increasingly impatient for success, the toppling of the Old Firm and possibly world domination as well.

He says: “I am sure the Hearts fans were thinking: ‘This guy, Ferencvaros, after that Uganda national team, who is he?’ I am sure they were thinking: ‘It’s one in, one out here. Soon he’ll be gone.’ So I had to fight to make people think that maybe I wasn’t just one manager from many.” And he did. Laszlo’s Hearts finished third in 2008-09 and the boss, who amused with his passion, quippery and touchline antics even if the team weren’t hugely entertaining, was manager of the year.

“Truly, I liked Scotland right from the start. That’s why I’m back, why after Hearts I never really left.” Dismissed halfway through the next campaign and able to call himself the longest-serving of Romanov’s appointments, Laszlo’s wife and children stayed on in the capital while he went looking for work in Belgium, Lithuania, Hungary and Slovakia, and they remain there still.

“It’s very simple why I love Scotland. The landscape is very close to Transylvania. We both have a lot of hills, although Transylvania has more forests. But the key thing is that the Scottish people are so warm inside my heart.

“The mentalities are the same. Szekelys have always been warriors who’ve had to fight for everything. In Romania under Ceausescu I had to fight for my religion because it was taboo. Even today in Transylvania you have a very strong people who don’t go down are very proud and always fighting.

“It’s the same with the Scottish who fight for what they believe, if it’s independence or just for identity. This is what I love and why I’m happy here. The Scottish keep fighting and don’t lose their proudness.” Some of that old Szekely spirit helped Laszlo win over the sceptics in Gorgie and the wider Scottish football public and he seems to have passed it down to his kids. “My oldest daughter is in London now, making Masters after university. She tells me that when she mentions Scotland the English say to her ‘Forget that’ and it makes her mad!”

That spirit couldn’t keep him in the job at Tynecastle, although he reckons that under the ultra-demanding and volatile former backstreet record flogger and submariner, nothing could. “Hearts at the time of Romanov were not the most nicest team for managers but I think after two or three months he began to trust me.” But trust enough not to try and pick the team or get jealous when the coach earned the plaudits for a winning run? These were the claims made last year by Liutauras 
Varanavicius, ex-chairman of Romanov’s Ukio Bank. Laszlo offers a weary smile and says: “Look, lots of football fans think the chairman doesn’t do a good job but I can tell you that nearly every one in his way tries to save his team. He puts in the money so he’s allowed to ask: ‘Hey, why you lost 6-1?’

“But Romanov did get jealous of me. I could tell you ten stories about this but I’ll tell you one: when I got the award of manager of the year I think the club were really, really happy but no-one from Romanov’s circle or Romanov the man said to me: ‘Congratulations for this very nice prize.’ This is because for them it was a shock: ‘How? What?’”

Could Romanov’s grand plan have worked? Maybe with a long-term approach, Laszlo reckons, allied to some lateral thinking. “You can’t challenge so easy Celtic and Rangers because they have too deep histories. They have the fanbases worldwide and they have the knowledge. These things won’t allow a team like Hearts or Hibs, or maybe one day again Dundee United, to go so fast.

“I tried to explain to Romanov that he needed a five or six-year project, that it had to begin with a new stadium and a new dressing-room and continue with different thinking from Celtic and Rangers. There’s no point copying the Old Firm. If you think differently there’s the surprise. In any war if you don’t have your own plan you don’t challenge nobody ever and you die. And Romanov lost completely. Yes, he won the dancing [Lithuania’s version of Strictly Come Dancing] but if you own the jury and the TV station that is easy. War is different and football is different.”

The battle facing the Arabs is different again, but it’s happening on familiar terrain for Laszlo and he tells of an encounter on Dundee’s streets which gives him great encouragement. “Two days ago a man stopped me: ‘I know you,’ he said. He remembered me from Hearts when I said some funny things. He said he was Dundee, not Dundee United, but he didn’t mention 6-1. He said he wanted my team to be playing his in the Premiership next season and I thanked him for his respect.”

Laszlo reckons he’s a better manager now, although he’s the same obsessive workaholic who got into trouble at home for a quip while at Tynecastle about football being more important than family. “It got worse,” he winces. “One time I was thinking about many things to do with Hearts and my wife said: ‘Did you forget something?’ I said: ‘No, I didn’t forget nothing.’ Then after one week she came back to me: ‘You forgot my birthday!’

“Right now, to get Dundee United back to the Premiership, I’m thinking just about football. The chairman he said to me this week: ‘You can talk about something else, you know.’ But football it must be. I relax watching other sport: basketball, ice hockey, handball. I think: ‘Is there something here I can use in football?’ You won’t find me in pubs because honestly I don’t know how to move in them. So I’ll walk around and find a quiet corner and think: ‘How are we going to win the next game?’”

After making his team watch back the 6-1 mauling he came up with a possible solution. “I didn’t kick down a door, push the players to the ground and cry for two hours. I suggested something which right now I cannot speak about but hopefully after the 16 matches that are left we will have had a successful season. Then you must come back to this hotel and I’ll tell you the secret.”

I tell him it’s a deal and that I’ll bring a back-up recorder and a couple of extra notebooks.