Tom English: Paulo Sergio deserves credit for prospering against all odds

PAULO Sergio didn’t need to be fluent in English to understand the depth of uncertainty surrounding his appointment as Jim Jefferies’ replacement as Hearts manager last August.

The cynicism was unmissable. There were reasons – albeit pretty harsh ones – for sacking Jefferies, but replacing him with the decidedly unproven Portuguese? It seemed like madness at the time. The nation’s bookmakers are probably still holding dockets bearing Sergio’s name alongside the words “next SPL manager to be sacked”, but, of course, they won’t be paying out. No matter how grim it looked for Sergio in his early months, no matter how out of place he appeared, he’s still there and there is now talk of him getting a contract renewal. Frankly, not many of us saw this coming.

Sergio is due a lot of credit. Sure, Hearts only scraped into the top six of the SPL, but even still, Sergio must be deemed a reasonable success all the same.

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We’re not just talking about the Scottish Cup final to come, though the possibility of silverware is enough to make even Vladimir Romanov back off from the ejector button. No, Sergio really proved his worth through the difficult periods of the season when his players weren’t being paid and were, therefore, unsettled and occasionally mutinous. Ultimately, the players themselves deserve the praise for mostly keeping their heads down and getting on with business, but these must have been desperately challenging months for the manager also.

It’s just as well this column doesn’t gamble on football. I have to admit I’d have been one of those who lumped on Sergio making a sharp exit from Tynecastle.

‘Big Eck’ in a seriously precarious position

ALEX McLeish has spoken often about his experiences of being Rangers manager and the theory that once you’ve managed an Old Firm team then pretty much any other job in the game is tame in comparison. Well, that belief is being put to the test at the moment.

Every time I look at the Premiership table, Aston Villa seemed to have dropped another position or two. They are now in 15th spot, six points ahead of Bolton in 18th but having played one game more than Owen Coyle’s team. As an unabashed Big Eck fan, I have to declare my hand in all of this. I’m bloody worried for him. Villa should have enough to stay up, but a win sometime soon wouldn’t go amiss.

They’ve only had one win in their last 11 league games, albeit that run included matches against Arsenal, Newcastle, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United.

They lost them all and drew five others. It’s been painful stuff for McLeish as he tries to win over a doubtful – no, hostile – local support at Villa who saw him get their arch-rivals Birmingham relegated last season and who now fear he’s going to do the same to them. McLeish has not had luck on his side.

His team have scored only nine times in their last 11 games and that is down to the loss of Darren Bent since late February. Richard Dunne, the leader at the back, has also been missing for two months. Others have lost form. And, of course, there is the desperate case of Stan Petrov’s illness. As excuses go, though, he really doesn’t have that many.

What lies ahead of McLeish’s team. Five games: at home to Sunderland on Saturday, then at home to Bolton, away to West Brom, home to Spurs and away at Norwich to finish. It could be worse, but then again in their meetings with those five clubs earlier in the season Villa managed just one win and a draw.

Four more points should see them safe, but the fact is that the teams directly below them in 16th, 17th and 18th – Wigan, QPR and Bolton – have displayed more spark of late than Villa. Three points from the Sunderland game on Saturday would ease the tension somewhat. Any chance of a favour from his old pal, Martin O’Neill?

Baying Lennon highlights the impossible job faced by referees

SCOTTISH referees will soon be allowed to officiate beyond their 47th birthday, an amendment to the rule that gives the likes of Euan Norris more than a dozen years left with a whistle in his mouth and a baying manager in his face when he makes a mistake, as he did several times last Sunday when Celtic were knocked out of the Scottish Cup by Hearts.

Norris’s performance has been analysed to death in the days since, his errors being pored over to such an extent that you’d swear the Celtic players and their manager, Neil Lennon, were free of all blame for the loss, that their failure to make the final had nothing to do with one of their midfielders missing two point-blank headers from a combined distance of about a yard and a half and everything to do with the decisions made by Norris, some of which were wrong in Celtic’s favour.

It is the way of things at the moment that whenever Celtic get the benefit of a dodgy call we hear nothing from Lennon about the lack of consistency from referees – Gary Hooper’s offside equaliser at Hampden, for instance, or the perfectly good Hearts goal disallowed in an SPL match in February or the seemingly good Rangers goal not allowed in the Old Firm derby just after Christmas and the ridiculous red card shown to an Inverness player when their game with Celtic was locked in a tense 0-0 which then become a comfortable 2-0 with the benefit of a one-man advantage. When the mistakes are against his own team we have an eruption – on the sideline, in the tunnel, on the pitch after the final whistle. We have victimhood on Twitter. We have suggestions that the bad calls against Celtic are “personal” while the bad calls against everybody else are, well, who cares what they are, right?

Referees in this country are no different to any other country. Last week, refereeing in England was described as crisis-ridden and yet on Twitter since Sunday you had a screed of comment bemoaning the Scottish whistlers and pining for the day they can be as professional as their counterparts down south. And yet their counterparts down south are making as many blunders, if not more. Video technology – and we don’t just mean goal-line technology – is the only way to support the referee whose job has now become impossible, especially in Scotland where the level of scrutiny is frenzied. Appoint a video referee.

Maybe by the time Norris hangs up his whistle things will have changed. Then again...