Hearts net gains with Jefferies' comeback

LAUDER, like much of Scotland, currently resembles a scene from the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow.

Vehicles and houses peer through deep snow with little activity outside due to freezing temperatures. Shovelling more of the white stuff than an Eskimo has proved a futile exercise for villagers, including Jim Jefferies. Best settle in for a quiet Christmas at home.

As the Hearts manager warms his cockles by the fire, he might wish to ponder the events of 2010. It has, after all, been one of the most monumental of his 60 years. For the first time since George Burley in September 2005, a Hearts manager has had to clear space on his mantelpiece for the Clydesdale Bank SPL Manager of the Month trophy. It offers some evidence of the progress made at Tynecastle this year.

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The Christmas period is notoriously hectic for football managers but Jefferies must surely make time for reflection. He replaced Csaba Laszlo at Hearts in January this year in a whirlwind changing of the guard. Club officials hoped to ignite a revival in fortunes by restoring a legendary figure to the managerial chair.

They couldn't have scripted it better. In fact, majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov would do justice to The A-Team's Hannibal Smith right now were he pictured with a cigar between his lips laughing: "I love it when a plan comes together."

Hearts sit third in the SPL, bearing down on Celtic in second place after an imperious eight-week period which was interrupted only by a home defeat to Kilmarnock. Aberdeen, Hibernian and Celtic have all been dispensed with during a sequence heralding eight wins from ten matches, and no defeats in the last seven.

Jefferies has restored team spirit, an issue he addressed instantly upon setting foot inside the Riccarton training complex. This has contributed heavily to the galvanising of the squad. He introduced several key signings like Ryan Stevenson, Kevin Kyle and Stephen Elliott. Additionally, he accepted and cleverly utilised players recommended by Romanov, like the talismanic Rudi Skacel and the undervalued but hugely influential Adrian Mrowiec.

Ground work was undertaken at the pre-season training camp at Il Ciocco, Tuscany, according Hearts basic fitness levels to stand them in fine stead for the season ahead. Early results were not entirely convincing of a team that could challenge for European football - only two victories from the opening seven league fixtures - but that now looks like mere teething problems.

Jefferies altered his formation in October to incorporate a bold three-man attack and, by doing so, accorded his team a forward thrust which has catapulted them up the SPL table. Players like Skacel, Kyle and David Templeton are thriving in the freedom accorded them by Jefferies and his coaching staff, Billy Brown and Gary Locke.

The ultimate upshot is that Hearts are undoubtedly Scotland's form team, sitting five points ahead of fourth-placed Inverness in the SPL and just two behind Celtic in second. Their stated aim remains a place in next season's Europa League qualifying rounds but they can now begin to contemplate ruffling a few Old Firm feathers.

Rangers, the league leaders, are only five points ahead, albeit with two games in hand.

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Such enriching form means the manager is definitely doing something right. As he scoffs a mince pie and sups on his wine this Christmas, professional satisfaction should be flowing through his veins. Across in Lithuania, Romanov is likely to be equally placated by his latest managerial appointment having had the sagacity to sanction Jefferies' return to Tynecastle 11 months ago. He may even break out that cigar.

"You've got to give Romanov credit for his foresight," said Peter Houston, pictured below, the Dundee United manager who worked on Jefferies' coaching staff at Tynecastle in the 1990s. "He's recognised someone the players can relate to, who has good experience and who was with the club before and won the Cup. Romanov then has to take the credit for saying, 'wait a minute, I shouldn't be interfering. Let's take a step back and see if this guy can do the job'.

"Jim and Billy can do the job no problem. I had no doubt when they took the job that they would be a success again. I think the people at Hearts should be delighted they asked two guys of the experience of Jim and Billy to come back."

Jefferies' ability to negotiate with Romanov is certainly key to the owner-manager relationship. It is an area where many predecessors struggled. Houston is thankful that the majority shareholder is dealing with Jefferies at a veteran age and not as an ambitious, up-coming coach.

"I played under Jim at Falkirk when he was a young manager. If it had been a young Jim Jefferies, he would probably storm in and do things his way. The experience he's got will have taught him that, rather than have a clash of personalities with the men at the top, he should try and work together and solve problems. There are probably loads of things Jim has wanted to do. There are loads of things I want to do at Dundee United but the chairman, like every chairman in the SPL, can't give me the money. Jim is probably the same. He's probably asked to get this one, that one and the next one and it's not happened. That doesn't mean you fall out about it, you just get on with what you've got to do and try to manage to the best of your ability.

"Jim's experience and ability to handle Mr Romanov is a good thing because I don't think he gets himself upset with some decision Mr Romanov might want to make. He just deals with it but still does his own thing."

Houston was a member of Jefferies' coaching staff in 1998 when the Scottish Cup returned to Gorgie and well remembers the depth of feeling the manager had towards the club he supported since childhood. He always expected that, one day, Jefferies would hanker after the Hearts manager's chair once again.

"Things happened after we'd won the cup. Jim and Chris Robinson (former chairman] never saw eye to eye but Hearts are a different club now," explained Houston. "There are new owners and Jim was desperate to go back. I always thought he would go back if he was asked. Sometimes they say going back to a club as a player isn't the best idea, but I think when Jim was appointed he was what Hearts needed.

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"They needed someone with vast experience in the SPL, who knew how to set teams up and win games. Given the right tools, I knew he would make a success of it. What Jim will be saying is 'we've done nothing yet.'. But he's got everybody together and got them playing for one another and Hearts are playing some good stuff right now. All he will want is for the players to maintain those standards. You can see Tynecastle becoming a fortress again and I'd imagine the Hearts fans are over the moon with Jim and the team at the moment.

"I think it was quite an easy decision to go back because Jim's affection for Hearts is well known. Due to the success he had first time at the club, he became a legend because Hearts had not won a trophy for many years. As long as he was allowed to do the job the way he wanted to do it, I knew he would do well. It looks like he has been given the run to do the job as he sees fit.

"One thing about Jim and Billy, they're great motivators. They'll get the best out of the team. Hearts have always had a good squad of players but Jim set about getting a regular team on the park. He was making sure the place was nice and calm with everyone looking forward to games on a Saturday.

"In the past five or six years at Hearts, there has been a lot of inconsistency in team selection. Jim likes to play a system and keep continuity.

"You'll find that, if all the players are fit, he'll stick closely to the same side. He knows his best team."

One suspects Vladimir Romanov knows who his best team is too.