Transfer Embargo Breaking Hearts

It’s time to let the Jambos sign players again

By Johnny Connelly

As the crippled Edinburgh club continue to battle against the odds on what feels like oh so many fronts, a glimmer of hope has emerged for their beleaguered fan base, as the SPFL board ponder a plea from Hearts’ administrators to allow them to sign players again.
Gary Locke’s side sit 20 points adrift at the bottom of Scotland’s elite division with just 16 games to go. They are fighting tooth and nail in every match, but when you look at the threadbare and inexperienced shell of a playing squad they have at their disposal, it’s clear that the club (and particularly the fans) have been punished in a draconian manner.

Tynecastle Stadium
A club in crisis – Hearts are amid their toughest fight yet

Unless the SPFL revoke this transfer embargo, Scotland will almost certainly lose one of its biggest clubs via relegation to the Championship. What a sorry state of affairs for this SPFL season if the status quo remains in place. We’re only halfway through January, and you could safely assume Celtic will run away with the title, and Hearts will fall foul of relegation. Unless something outrageous happens, the second half of our currently sponsorless Premiership is in danger of being a damp squib.

Understandably, rules and protocols are there to be followed; but with the evolution of our game, they’re arguably there to be challenged and improved upon too. Barely a season goes past without a handful of proposals at least being discussed. Everything from summer football to disciplinary procedures is up for discussion, and we’ll continue to fashion our game into an improved product over time.

There are always exceptions to any rule, and given the bizarre circumstances surrounding the downfall of Hearts, it’s clear that an exception for their transfer embargo should be considered.

Punishing a club for going into administration is understandable. It promotes financial prudence, and makes an example of clubs who’ve been reckless with things like inflated transfer fees, and bloated wage bills.

Hearts went into administration in June 2013, but the club’s finances have been questionable for years, all thanks to the disastrous tenure of Vladimir Romanov. If administration is supposed to be a punishment for a club, then I’d argue that Hearts (staff, players, and fans) have been receiving something of a punishment of sorts for the most part ever since Romanov seized control of the Gorgie club back in 2004.

Despite a spattering of highlights and a positive start in the early days, the Romanov era will long be remembered as one of the most catastrophic and farcical saga’s that any club in Scotland has ever had to endure.

Since going into administration, Hearts have had to unceremoniously part with the lion’s share of their first team squad. The fans have been asked to put their hands in their pockets time after time to keep the club’s hand to mouth existence going, and they’ve done so without question.

They continue to be called upon financially, turning up in good numbers and in strong voice to support their club its hour of need. Gary Locke is currently struggling to get enough bodies together to fill his starting 11 and subs bench. Just a few free transfers in January (perhaps  the likes of Rudi Skacel or Andrew Driver) could make all the difference, and could give the Jambos a sporting chance of surviving in the Premiership.

Yes, the fans have been punished by way of administration, but they’ve been suffering all along since 2004. Sporting integrity and common sense in this case show that the rules need looked at again, as Hearts’ punishment doesn’t befit their crimes.

The SPFL – Fan Fuelled Evolution

by Johnny Connelly

(As hosted on http://www.plzsoccer.com/news)

It’s been a long, long time coming, but we’ve successfully reformed the structure of our professional football league format in this country. It’s all kicking off this week, and not a minute too soon.

That arduous, seemingly never-ending string of weeks where we find ourselves with a gaping football hole to fill is almost at an end. We kid ourselves that pre-season friendlies, and even old Youtube clips of bygone years will anesthetise us throughout the summer, but the truth is, nothing but the real McCoy will do. In Scotland, the fans need football; but more importantly, the football needs fans.

This interdependency has never been more apparent than it is now. The dark cloud of doom that lurked over Rangers throughout the Craig Whyte/Charles Green/liquidation saga served as a stark warning that all clubs can fall victim to the perils of the business aspects of the modern game. Yet, at the other end of that turmoil, we saw glimpses of the finest element of our game, the unwavering and unquestioning support of the fans.

Clubs in our country have been plagued by problems of their own, but we’re fighting through it together as football fans. The news this week that Dunfermline’s long standing threat of liquidation could be at an end is huge shot in the arm for our wavering game. The fact that the CVA came from ‘Pars United’, an ordinary group of Dunfermline supporters, further enhances the remarkability of this particular happy ending.

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The New Way – Neil Doncaster showcases the new SPFL logo at Hampden

As we prepare to embark upon the new dawn that is the SPFL, it becomes apparent that fan power is more important than ever. Last season was resplendent with hints that the fans will have the final say when it comes to football in this country.

Last season we saw something of a siege mentality at Ibrox, as Rangers fans flocked to support the team in their darkest hour. Attendance records were challenged, and dare I say it, the much maligned Glasgow club seem to be through the worst of their troubles, all thanks to the fans.

Similarly, Dunfermline looked doomed just weeks ago, probably more so than Rangers, but the collective presence of likeminded fans have all but saved their club, albeit through the means of a CVA and by virtue of an empathetic set of creditors.

The SPFL’s big focus now should be channelling energy into finding a solution for Hearts. They too will sink or swim based on the actions of their fans. The effort and commitment so far from the Hearts fans has been overwhelming, and if they could somehow meet the desired monetary amounts to satisfy the creditors, we’d be witnessing a miraculous escape for one of our country’s most revered clubs.

Clubs defying the odds to survive thanks to fan power are perhaps somewhat sensationalised examples of what the common punter can achieve in the world of football. We can however, step back and see that the fans have the power to make the new SPFL a success, despite the apparent downgrading of our domestic game since the days of Larsson, Laudrup, De Boer, and Sutton.

As fans, we’ve faced debacles like the Setanta deal and uncertainties galore, yet here we are, on the brink of another glorious season. Excitement is cascading across the country in anticipation of the big kick off. Yes, there’ll be more problems, and yes, it’s far from the polished product that our neighbours across the border take in every weekend, but it can still be glorious in its own inimitable way.

Small steps are being taken in the right direction all the time. It’s looking positive for the start of the season, as there’s no clearer indication of support than a rise in season ticket sales. 7 of the 12 SPFL Premiership clubs have reported increases in season ticket sales so far, and another 3 SPFL Premiership clubs say their sales are on a par with last season.

Even without the presence of Rangers in our top division, the clubs do have something to attract their fans this season. Celtic, Motherwell and St Johnstone have a taste of European football. They’ll be looking to maximise their involvement this term, and ensure they get to participate again next time around.

Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle will strive to continue their meteoric rise, challenging for 2nd place in the Premiership this season perhaps? Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United and Aberdeen will seek to right the wrongs of last season and finish in a position that befits their club stature; while St Mirren, Kilmarnock, and the new boys Partick Thistle will be well aware they’ve been touted to go down, so they’ll have fire in their bellies, and a will to escape the drop.

The road back to the big time for Scottish football is a long one, we may never get back to where we were, but football in this country is a labour of love. We’ll forever indulge in nostalgia, we’ll forever exaggerate the glory days, and we’ll forever dream of a product better than the one we current showcase.

Our excitement for football is insatiable, there’s nothing quite like those start of the season butterflies. This time around, we’ll take the bad news with a pinch of salt and remember that football is for enjoying.

It may not be perfect, but it’s our league, and we love it.

The ‘Out of Contract’ SPL Select

Motherwell Striker, Michael Higdon

By Johnny Connelly

09/04/13

It’s no big secret that the game in Scotland has seen better days financially. The lavish spending that saw Scottish clubs trying to lure players from the Premiership and beyond is well and truly at an end. Now, more than ever, the ability to be shrewd in the transfer market is of paramount importance, as SPL clubs look to get as much bang for their buck as possible.

This summer, an astonishing 124 players will leave SPL clubs, admittedly some of these will be loans expiring, but the vast majority will form a huge pool of potentially promising free transfers is there to be trawled through. The difference between success and failure in the SPL can boil down to just a few clever signings, so you can be sure that all SPL managers will be casting a speculative eye on the list of players who’re out of contract this summer.

Unquestionably, there are some players among the 124 that could still be a major force in the SPL. Check out our top ‘Out of Contract’ SPL Select below:

Goalkeeper: Darren Randolph (Motherwell)

Between the sticks for our dream team, we have the man who’s smashed records for Motherwell, and been a major factor in their meteoric rise under Stuart McCall. Darren Randolph has been in fine form again this term, and only last season recorded a club record, 20 clean sheets.  He’s continued to pull off big saves in big games, especially away from home. He’s conceded the fewest away goals in the SPL this season (Celtic apart), and seems to be improving all the time. Neil Lennon is a known admirer of Randolph, and a move for the player was considered before Fraser Forster took the Parkhead jersey on a permanent basis. At just 25, his best years are most certainly ahead of him. Motherwell will be hard pushed to find a replacement of his ilk, but his release from Fir Park will be music to the ears of clubs in search of a top goalkeeper. Given the player’s current stature and form, a move south of the border, perhaps to the Championship, appears to be a more likely outcome. However, if another SPL club could somehow secure Randolph’s signature, he’d be an asset to them, and the league in general.

Defender: Alan Maybury (Hibs)

At 34, Maybury is no spring chicken; but what he lacks in youthful exuberance, he makes-up for in experience. The Irishman has plied his trade in the SPL, on and off, for the past 12 years. He made his biggest impact in his younger days on the other side of the Edinburgh divide at the mainstay of the Hearts defence. His no nonsense style and ability to play anywhere across a back-4 made him a hit at the Tynecastle club, and a good solid prospect for some of the lesser SPL clubs to this day (despite his advanced years). Having also spent time at Aberdeen and St Johnstone, before ending up at Hibs, Maybury knows better than most what the SPL is all about. His experience in England, as well as for Ireland at full international level would be a welcome addition to most SPL dressing rooms. He’s failed to reproduce his top form for Hibs this season, but his ‘steady-eddy’ approach could be appealing for clubs fighting the drop next season as his grit and determination is something all managers look to install in their defence.

Defender: Thomas Rogne (Celtic)

Norwegian international, Thomas Rogne, has divided opinion amongst the Parkhead faithful in his 2 and a half year spell at the club. On one hand, a promising, young, commanding centre-half with his best years infront of him; and on the other, an injury prone, frustrating enigma of a player. Rogne was picked up by Celtic during the ill-fated Tony Mowbray regime. Initially he impressed, so much so that he was dubbed as, “the best young talent to come out of Norway in the past 10 years”, by ex-Celt Vidar Riseth. Since Neil Lennon took the reins at Celtic, Rogne has fallen out of favour, and has been hampered by a string of long term injuries. He’s yet to have been given a significant run of games this season, and when he rejected a contract extension based on salary, his exit from Parkhead seemed to be sealed. At just 22, and with the raw talent he’s shown (albeit on a limited basis), he could prove to be a shrewd signing for clubs in the Scottish top flight or beyond. Assuming of course his relatively high wage demands could be met, and his injury hell, a thing of the past.

Defender: Andy Webster (Hearts)

Experienced defender Andy Webster will leave Hearts for the second time in his career this summer, albeit in slightly less controversial circumstances this time. The rough and tumble centre half has been a regular for the Hearts side of late, replicating the decent form he captured during his first spell at the club between 2001-06. He’s no world-beater, but a consistent performer that’s tough in the tackle, and plays to his strengths, without over-stepping his mandate on the field. Webster played only a handful of times at Wigan and Rangers before coming back to Hearts to make his mark. Despite having bags of experience, at 30 years old, he’s still got a good few years left in him, and wouldn’t look out of place in most SPL defences. He’s been capped for Scotland 28 times, and has been on the periphery of the squad several times in the past few years. He’ll be keen to stay in the SPL if possible, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility for him to earn a place in Gordon Strachan’s Scotland squad once more.

Defender: Mihael Kovacevic (Ross County)

Given the fantastic season Ross County have had, it’s something of a surprise that they’ve succumbed to letting a player as solid as Kovacevic slip through their fingers. The 6ft 4in fullback has been a regular in Derek Adams’ back 4 this season, and something of an unsung hero at times. The Swiss defender offers little going forward, but ensures that he gives his opposite number a formidable challenge each time he takes to the field. He game seems to have developed considerably since his Dundee United days, as the 25 year old’s ball distribution and positional sense have been lamented this term. Kovacevic’s home form in particular has caught the attention of many, and the stats also back up his performances. At home this season, Ross County have conceded the 2nd fewest goals, picking the ball out the net just 14 times since August. This’ll have gone some way to helping Ross County pick up the £500,000 windfall guaranteed by finishing in the top half of the SPL. Kovacevic will be a sore loss to the Staggies, but their loss could well be another SPL club’s gain.

Midfielder: David Wotherspoon (Hibs)

Pat Fenlon’s transfer policy at Hibs since he took over seems to have connotations with the revolving door of a popular department store. David Wotherspoon and 7 others will head for the Easter Road exit when the season draws to a close, and the young Scotsman is expected to be amongst the more sought-after Hibs departees. He has pace, a willingness to get forward, and seems to turn on the flair in big games (most notably scoring a late winner against fierce rivals Hearts earlier in the season). Perhaps a little lightweight, and his goals return leaves a lot to be desired, but his ability to beat players and pick a pass is unparalleled in the current Hibs team. His summer departure will mark the end of a 6-year spell at the Hibees, and his preferred departure remains as yet unknown, but offers from the more frugal SPL clubs are to be expected.

Midfielder: Andrew Shinnie (Inverness)

Definitely the surprise package of the SPL this season, Inverness Caley Thistle’s Andrew Shinnie catapulted the Highland club to a remarkable top-6 finish, and could yet aid them to finish in 2nd place if he can recapture his early season form. The attacking midfielder exploded into form as the SPL 2012/13 kicked-off. He found the net 9 times in the first half of the season, and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty with the less attractive side of the game too. His form this season has showed that the 23-year old is on the up, making Rangers potentially regret deeming the player ‘surplus to requirements’ back in 2011. His Tulloch Caledonian Stadium departure was purely by choice, after the creative midfielder rejected an extension to stay under the watch of current gaffer, Terry Butcher. Aberdeen have already expressed an interest in the player, but it appears as though Shinnie won’t be rushed into deciding where his next move will be.

Midfielder: Paddy McCourt (Celtic)

When the grand history of Celtic Football Club comes to be written, few players will be considered to have been more of an enigma than their current cult hero/zero, Paddy McCourt. His aptitude for skipping past players and scoring spectacular goals with relative ease endeared him to sections of the Parkhead support, but his never-ending fitness issues have blighted his career to a point where Neil Lennon has decided not to retain his services. His seeming inability to play 90 minutes on a football field at an age when most football players hit their physical peak is baffling to say the least. However, when it comes to dribbling ability, there are only a handful of players in the SPL that can hold a candle to the Northern Irishman. Rumours of Premiership interest in the past, including Liverpool and Wolves on several occasions have hovered around the player, but with a matter of weeks remaining on his contract, it seems as though the ‘Derry Pele’ may yet continue to ply his trade in Scotland, if a suitable SPL suitor can be found. Signing him would be a gamble for SPL clubs, but if the player’s fitness could be resolved and maintained, McCourt could yet light up the SPL for seasons to come.

Midfielder/Forward: James McFadden (Motherwell)

Faddy’s return to Fir Park just a few months ago was the nearest thing to a marquee signing that our ailing league has seen for many years. The Motherwell fans were euphoric to welcome home their prodigal son, all the while wondering if the former Scotland talisman still had some magic left in his locker. Much to the relief of Stuart McCall, he’s turned it on, more and more as each game passes. Perhaps not as quick as he once was, and certainly needing to shift a few pounds, but anyone it’s clear he’s still a cut above the majority of the competition in the SPL. He’s still a goal threat from free-kicks, as he proved against St Mirren last week, and he still possesses the touch and drive of a player with something to prove, and trophies to win. Given the sense of apathy from English clubs for McFadden over the past few years, an SPL club could be his ticket back to the Scotland squad, as he seeks to recapture the form that secured him the big move to Everton all those years ago.

Striker: Kris Boyd (Kilmarnock)

Ok, he’s not the lean, sprightly Rangers and Kilmarnock goal machine he was in the past; but still at just 29 years old, and with the commendable record of being the top scorer in the history of the SPL, Kris Boyd on a free transfer must at least be worth a thought for some clubs in Scotland’s top flight. Since leaving Rangers just a few years ago, Boyd has had a frustrating time down south with Middlesbrough & Nottingham Forrest, a nightmare of a time in Turkey with Eskisehirspor, and a farcical time in the MLS with Portland Timbers. Kenny Shiels saw an opportunity to pick up a cut-price proven goalscorer for Kilmarnock, and it almost paid dividends, as they missed out on a top 6 position in the SPL by the skin of their teeth. Boyd has found the net for Killie upon his return, and given that his stock is low pretty much everywhere except Scotland, there’ll never be a better time to pick up a bargain basement priced striker capable of scoring 30 goals a season. The risk for any interested parties would of course be the player’s attitude and general enthusiasm for the game at that level. Still, the rewards greatly outweigh the risks, and I’m sure we’ll see offers for the player in the coming weeks, assuming of course Killie don’t opt to take the plunge themselves.

Striker: Michael Higdon (Motherwell)

Unfortunately for Motherwell, Michael Higdon is the 3rd player of theirs to make it into our ‘Out of Contract Select’.  Higdon is one of many top, dependable players exiting the Lanarkshire club this summer, and he’s done himself no harm at all career-wise when you analyse the shift he’s put in for the Steelmen. The big scouser will win few awards for his artistic approach to the game (or lack of), but firing home 25 goals so far this season for Motherwell has perched him at the top of the SPL goal scoring charts, and has helped his side to get to within touching distance of 2nd place in the SPL. His presence in the penalty area is unmistakable. He’s a handful for any and all defenders in the league, and he gives 100% at every 50/50. His attitude is what makes him the player, and the asset he is. Motherwell will struggle without him next season, and his phenomenal goal scoring record this season will no doubt have attracted attention from his homeland. For the good of the SPL, I for one hope Higdon extends his stay in Scotland, and keeps on banging in the goals.

Jambos Rejoice, Romanov’s Offski

by Johnny Connelly – Archive piece from PLZ Soccer – April 2013

9 years ago, a little known Lithuanian of Russian descent embarked upon a trailblazing scheme to take over one of Scotland’s biggest football clubs.

He promised, under his leadership, they’d win the Champions League within a decade.

Now, with less than a year to fulfil his promise, and with his millions and millions of pounds of assets now allegedly in the hands of others, said Lithuanian unquestionably has his work cut out for him…

READ THE FULL STORY HERE…

Hearts’ Scottish Cup Heroes of 2006 – Where are they now?

Hearts' Triump at Hampden - 2006

As the ever controversial Vladimir Romanov era erupts again with stories of unpaid wages and players going on strike, the Jambos fans could be forgiven for reminiscing over happier times. The club’s last major coo was securing the 2006 Scottish Cup. Hitthebyline takes a look back at that successful Hearts team, and reveals where they are now.

Goalkeeper – Craig Gordon

The biggest success in this Hearts team; and the most expensive Jambo in history, Craig Gordon’s career continued to flourish after the success of 2006. Gordon played 139 times for Hearts, and is the youngest player ever to be named in the club’s Hall of Fame (aged just 24 at the time). The year after the Scottish Cup triumph, Sunderland broke the UK transfer record for a goalkeeper by signing Gordon for £9million. He’s been capped for Scotland 40 times, and played 87 times for Sunderland, despite falling out of favor on occasion. Serious injuries have hampered his career progress (in particular an 8-month layoff as a result of knee surgery) and the player has found himself surplus to requirements with the Black Cats. The arrival of Martin O’Neill at the club may positively impact his fortunes, but as it stands, the player’s contract is due to expire in the summer. Celtic and Arsenal are known to be interested in the player, and at just 28-years of age, Gordon’s best years are clearly still in front of him.

Defender – Robbie Neilson

After 13 years and 200 appearances for the Gorgie club, Neilson set off in search of a new challenge in 2009, ending up at Championship club Leicester City.  Neilson was at the mainstay of Sven Goran Eriksson’s promotion challenging side in his first year at the club, making 19 starts that season. However, things too turned sour for Neilson as his first team opportunities were restricted to just a handful in the coming years. In February of this year, he was loaned out to League One club Brentford, where he made 15 appearances, the highlight of which was the Football League Trophy final (where the London club narrowly lost to Carlisle). Neilson was released by Leicester in May, and trained briefly with Falkirk and Burton Albion before making a welcome return to the SPL, joining Peter Houston’s Dundee United. The experienced defender has failed to capture the form at Hearts that endeared him to the fans and saw him capped for Scotland, but at 31-years old the player does have a few years left in him at the top level. Away from the field, Neilson has recently been banned from driving after being clocked at 106mph.

Defender – Steven Pressley (c)

The Scottish Cup victory proved to be the swan song of Pressley, as the infamous spat with Vladimir Romanov came to a head in the months that followed the final. After a phenomenal 271 appearances for Hearts, Pressley made the surprise switch to Celtic, having rejected offers from Championship sides Derby County and Charlton. Pressley was a formidable presence in the Celtic back-four, and went on to captain the side on several occasions. The highlight of his time in Glasgow’s East End was a Scottish Cup win in 2008. This etched Pressley into the history books as the first player to win the Scottish Cup with three different clubs. When his contract expired at Celtic, Pressley trained with several clubs to keep up his level of fitness, before signing a short-term deal with Falkirk. Upon his retirement as a player, he was handed the assistant manager’s job at Brockville, and eventually became the manager. ‘Elvis’ has had his ups and downs as a manager, but now seems to have turned the corner. In his first season he saw Falkirk relegated to the Scottish First Division, but he now has assembled a young team playing attractive football and challenging for promotion. Pressley is now regarded as one of the up and coming Scottish management talents, with many a close eye watching his progress.

Defender – Ibrahim Tall

This big Senegalese defender’s move to Tynecastle was fraught with controversy, as then manager George Burley had the player added to his squad against his wishes by owner Vladimir Romanov. Despite earning a huge £8,000 per week at the time, Tall spent much of his time on the bench or in the stand, appearing just 35 times in 3 years. In the 2005-2006 season he formed a strong central defensive partnership with Steven Pressley. Despite the relative success, the player was released in 2008 and signed for newly promoted Ligue 1 side FC Nantes. Tall was a regular in this side before making the move to Greece in 2010 to play for Larissa (not long after another SPL export, Maciej Zurawski, had parted ways with the Greek outfit.) Tall remains with Larissa to this day and is a regular starter under manager Chris Coleman .

Defender – Takis Fyssas

The capture of Fyssas’ signature was indeed a signal of intent as a resurgent Hearts then aimed to break the stranglehold of the Old Firm in Scottish football. The big Greek defender made a surprise move to Hearts from Benfica in 2005, at a time when clubs in the Bundesliga and English Championship were interested in the player. Fyssas was an integral part of the remarkable Greek triumph at Euro 2004, making his signing all the more impressive. He arguably peaked during his time at Tynecastle, both in terms of the standard of football he was playing at club level,  and also that the player earned the majority of his 60 caps for Greece around that period of time. In 2007 he left the Edinburgh club in favour of a move to Greek giants Panathinaikos. After only a handful of games, Fyssas decided to retire and take on a coaching role with the Greek national side. He is currently the technical director of the Greek Football Federation (Hellenic Football Federation) based in Athens.

Midfielder – Deividas Česnauskis

A popular trait of the Romanov early years was to import several players from FBK Kaunas, one of which was Česnauskis. The Lithuanian’s contribution to the successful Scottish Cup campaign was notable, in that he scored the winning goal in a 2-1 win over Partick Thistle in the quarter final.  Česnauskis appeared 68 times for Hearts in 4 years, but fell out of favour towards the end of his time in the capital. Due to injuries and poor form, the player found himself not featuring for over a year at Hearts, and eventually chose to leave in 2009, signing a two-year deal with Greek minnows Ergotelis. After a year there, he switched to Aris FC (also of Greece). The move again didn’t work out for the player, who’s since made an unusual move to the Azerbaijan Premier league outfit FC Baku. Česnauskis’ Scottish Cup winners medal has proved to be just the second honour of the player’s career, after winning the Russian Premier League with Lokomotiv Moscow in 2004.

Midfielder – Bruno Aguiar

Another Kaunas import, Bruno Aguiar, made his move to Hearts after finding himself bereft of opportunities at Benfica, and failing to secure a permanent move after a couple of loan deals in Portugal. Aguiar played an important part in the 2005/2006 SPL campaign run-in, having only joined the club in January 2006, he strung together several impressive performances, assisting Hearts to narrowly secure 2nd spot in the SPL, displacing Rangers by a single point. At the start of the following season, things soon went wrong for Aguiar. The midfielder was sent off in the Champions League qualifier against AEK Athens, and only weeks later he suffered a horrendous ankle injury that kept him out the game for 18 months.  Aguiar was told he may never play again, but still managed to return and champion the Edinburgh club’s cause. The Portugese playmaker returned to action in October of 2008, managed to win the SPL player of the month award for December, and ended up as Hearts’ top scorer for the season with 7 goals. In 2009 his contract expired and he joined Cypriot side AC Omonia, where he’s become a fantastic success to this day. Aguiar has continued to endure injury problems, but played a huge part in helping Omonia to win the Cypriot League and Cup double last season.

Midfielder – Paul Hartley

Industrious midfielder Paul Hartley became a household name during his time at Hearts (2003-2007) after moving from St Johnstone on a free transfer. His tenacious, rugged style of play attracted plaudits from the Old Firm, major clubs in England, and kick-started his international career. The player went on to play 25 times for Scotland, and appeared 118 times for Hearts, scoring 31 times in the process. Although usually a reliable player, Hartley found himself on the receiving end of a red card in the 2006 Scottish Cup final. Possibly his most memorable match for the Jam Tarts was the Scottish Cup semi-final against arch-rivals Hibernian, as the Scotsman scored his first hat-trick as a professional footballer in a 4-0 mauling at Hampden. Another impressive year was spent at Hearts before Celtic took the plunge and purchased the player for £1.1million. Then Celtic manager Gordon Strachan was a huge fan of Hartley, usually deploying the player in a defensive ball-winning midfield role. His highlight in Glasgow was helping to guide the club to the SPL championship in the 2007-2008 season, where the Bhoys had to (and subsequently did) win all of their remaining 8 league fixtures, two of which were against Rangers, to clinch the title. In 2009, new Celtic manager Tony Mowbray released Hartley, and the player joined Bristol City for a single season. Hartley scored in his debut and held his own for the Championship club, but cited a desire to return to Scotland as the catalyst to join Aberdeen the following season. At 34-years old, time was against Hartley, but he was nonetheless appointed club captain, and scored a hat-trick of penalty kicks in his debut for the Dons against Hamilton in a 4-0 win. He turned out 24 times for Aberdeen during the 2010-2011 season, but decided to retire from playing after suffering a medial knee ligament injury. Hartley is currently the manager of Scottish 3rd Division side Alloa Athletic. He’s guided the team to the top of the league after 17 games, having lost just twice, and has registered himself as a player (despite as yet never picking himself, and previously saying he’d retired), so the fans of the Wasps met yet see Hartley pull on the boots in their fight for promotion into the 2nd Division.

Attacking Midfielder – Rudi Skacel

Cultured Czech international Rudi Skacel is the only player of the 2006 starting XI who currently still plays his football at Tynecastle. The Scottish Cup final win was to be Skacel’s last game for Hearts before joining up with former Hearts manager George Burley at Southampton, after his stellar form attracted a £1.6million bid from the Championship club. Skacel found himself being deployed mostly as a left-back to fill the void filled by the departure of Gareth Bale to Spurs. He appeared 81 times in 3 seasons for Southampton before three somewhat fruitless transfers to the continent. The first of which was a loan deal, taking him to Hertha Berlin. Here the talented attacker played 16 times but didn’t convince the Germans to splash the cash and bring him in on a permanent basis. Southampton found themselves relegated, and to save cash, Skacel was one of many players who was released. Next up was a move to his former club Slavia Prague, but Skacel made just 5 appearances before being released, and picked up by Greek side Larissa. This deal too didn’t work out for the Czech as his chances were limited to just 7 appearances before Hearts made the bold move to resign the player for an undisclosed fee in 2010. A return debut made in heaven was to ensue, as he scored against Rangers. Since then, he’s been a regular in the Hearts team and recaptured the form that attracted a wide range of attention in the first place. The long term future of Skacel looks extremely unclear, as Hearts financial problems continue to mount up, and the player’s contract is due to expire in the coming weeks – it may well be the case that Rudi Skacel’s time at Hearts is about to come to an end.

Striker – Roman Bednar

The tall figure of Roman Bednar was a revelation during his time at Tynecastle, finding a knack of scoring in big games regularly. Bednar netted on his debut against Kilmarnock, scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Rangers, and netted a brace against Celtic at Tynecastle in a 2-1 for the Gorgie club (to name but a few scalps of his). The Czech international played another season at Hearts after the Scottish Cup win, before being snapped up initially on loan, then on a permanent basis by Championship promotion hopefuls West Bromwich Albion. The striker spent 3 seasons at West Brom, one of which in the Premiership, making over 100 appearances, and finding the back of the net 34 times. Bednar fell out of favour at the Hawthorns last season, and made a short-term loan move to fellow Championship side Leicester City. Following this, a £1.2 million offer from Bristol City was accepted for the tall forward, but he failed to agree personal terms and joined Turkish side Ankaragucu for the remainder of the season. Surprisingly, despite not being a regular starter, he’s agreed a contract extension at West Brom until the end of the current season. At just 28, there’s much hope yet for Bednar to make as big an impact on the game in England as he did in Scotland.

Striker – Edgaras Jankauskas

This well travelled striker didn’t stay in the one place for too often at all. His time at Hearts was a two-season long loan from FBK Kaunas, but this doesn’t begin to tell the story of his wealth of experience. Jankauskas turned out for no less than 16 different clubs in his professional career, including CSKA Moscow, Porto, Benfica, Nice and Real Sociedad. His experience and guile helped to no end during the 2005-2006 season, as the player, alongside the powerful Bednar, steamrollered through defenses regularly. His time in Scotland proved to be the last, significant length of time the player seemed settled at any club. At 6ft 4, his stature made him an ideal target man, but he only managed 9 goals in two years at the Gorgie club. The Scottish Cup winners medal belonging to Jankauskas will be dwarfed in terms of importance next to the Champions League winners medal he obtained during his time at Porto in 2004, and the Uefa Cup winners medal he won in 2003. His success with Porto to this day makes Jankuskas the only Lithuanian ever to have won the Champions League. His international career too was remarkable, representing his country regularly over a career spanning 17 years. After departing Hearts in 2007, he played half a season for Greek side AEK Larnaca. This was followed by more short term moves to  Belenenses of Portugal, Skonto Riga of Latvia, Vilnius of his native Lithuania, New England Revolution of the USA, and finally FC Fakel Voronezh of Russia before retiring. It could be said that Hearts parted company at the correct time, as the striker managed on average less than 10 appearances per club, and less than 3 goals per club after leaving the SPL. Jankauskas now holds the rather unusual role of Assistant Manager/Translator for Lokomotiv Moscow, who finished 6th last year in the Russian Premier League.

Why Rudolf could be the ideal Christmas present for Rangers

When the news broke that Steven Naismith would be out for the rest of the season, the Ibrox faithful became fully aware that the equilibrium of reliable quality and stalwart position holders had been significantly disrupted, so much so that what once looked like a confident stroll towards the title, now would be transformed into a more familiar dogfight.

Gers fans, the media, and even the manager have held their hands up to say that the squad is threadbare; but less would concede to my view, that the team relies entirely on 4 top-class players.

To my mind, Alan McGregor in goal, dogged midfielder Steven Davis, cultured striker Nikica Jelavic, and the aforementioned Naismith were the galvanized spine that took games by the scruff of the neck and led Rangers to a formidable lead in the title race. Rangers, as well as Celtic, are held by constraints that no longer allow them the luxury of being able to afford the absence of a player of the quality of Naismith.

It’s no coincidence that Rangers’ dip in form came has come at a time when Naismith has been sidelined.

In the four games Rangers have played since the Scotland international damaged his cruciate ligaments, the Glasgow giants have secured a win over Aberdeen by virtue of a Jelavic penalty kick, a win over Dundee United with the help of an own-goal & penalty, a 0-0 draw at Ibrox against St Johnstone, and a 1-0 defeat away to Kilmarnock.

Conversely, before the injury, Rangers hadn’t lost a league match this season, and had drawn just twice in the league since this campaign began in July.

If Rangers are to recapture that championship winning formula, a stop-gap of equal ability for Naismith must be acquired in January, and I believe that replacement could be found at another cash-strapped SPL club, Paulo Sergio’s Hearts.

Rudolf (Rudi) Skacel, in my opinion, is capable of bringing much more festive cheer to the blue end of Glasgow than his scarlet-nosed quadruped namesake ever has.

Firstly, Ally McCoist will have no money to spend in January with the HMRC tax case looming over Ibrox like an ominous dark cloud, so a big money signing to ease the woe of the supporters isn’t going to happen.

Sticking with the cash-strapped theme, this also affects the wage budget, so any free transfers would most likely need to come from the SPL. Hearts in particular will be dying to shed some excess flab from an already bloated wage structure, and it just so happens Skacel’s contract will be due to expire in January.
Surely the Czech international would jump at the chance to get his hands on some silverware and play in front of a 50,000 crowd? The move would also represent one of Rangers very few viable alternatives to replace a player like Naismith.

Rangers would need to act fast, as Skacel is believed to be in talks with infamous Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov about extending his contract, although nothing has been finalised.

Skacel, at 32-years old has bags of experience, and is the current top-scorer at the Gorgie club. He’s played in the English Championship, as well as top flight football in Greece, Germany, Czech Republic, France, and has played in the Champions League. There are few players with such a CV could be attracted to Rangers to fill this Naismith-shaped hole behind Jelavic.

His prowess in front of goal is in no doubt with 31 goals for Hearts in his two stints at the club; despite not playing in a traditional striker’s role.

Of course this piece is entirely speculative, but the need for a Naismith replacement must be top of Ally McCoist’s Christmas list. Failure to insert a proven attacking-midfielder into the Rangers side could be just enough to give fierce rivals Celtic the edge in what looks set to be another nail-biting title race.

How ironic on this occasion that for once, this Christmas, Rudolf, rather than Santa could be the main focal point of the holiday season. However, whether Craig Whyte can make this Rudolf a ‘blue-nose’ with the monetary appeasing equivalent of the usual Christmas eve carrots could prove to be the biggest stumbling block of all.