London Hearts Supporters Club

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8 of 016 Rudi Skacel 32 ;David Templeton 52 L SPL H
Interview: Rudi Skacel, Hearts footballer

By Aidan Smith
In the clubstore this afternoon there are heavy discounts on ladies' dressing-gowns and the DVD of last season's sixth-place finish but one player is doing good business for Hearts.

The only member of the first-team squad with a T-shirt bearing his silhouetted image, and in three colours as well, he's sold out at the postcard rack where the likes of Kevin Kyle and Calum Elliot continue to grin hopefully. At the checkout, a woman hands over a replica shirt: "Can I have '19 - Skacel' on the back for my laddie, please, and this 'Good luck' card's for his prelims."

Round at Tynecastle's front entrance, the Gorgie poster boy is already waiting for me, much to the amusement of some of the staff: "Christ, Rudi, you're on time!" "Time is money," he says, "and time waits for no persons." He's sporting the beginnings of a moustache, for "Movember", and a news photographer wants a shot. "No, no," he says covering the bottom half of his face with his hand. "Not finished. You come back in two weeks."

Print deadlines wait for no persons, of course, and the snapper moves on.

Rudi Skacel, as we have seen recently, has a keen sense of theatre. Just when we were beginning to wonder, in his second spell in maroon, where his goals had gone, he scored a sparkling hat-trick. Then, lining up against his two most bitter SPL foes in quick succession, he vanquished both. More of Derek Riordan and Neil Lennon later, but Skacel seems to have a sense of humour as well, so I can't resist asking, in the wake of that tempestuous Edinburgh derby and all those missiles which rained down on the pitch, if he could lend me a few pence for my bus journey after we're done talking.

"Ha ha, but you're not the first to make that joke," he says. "People in the street, taxi drivers, they ask me for money, or for a light for cigarette." Oh, the merry banter of the not-quite-as-X-rated-as-the-Old-Firm-but-jessies-look-away-now capital contest.

Hearts and their Czech Republic midfielder are having a very good Movember. An annoying habit of taking take two steps forward then one back, and to cock up at home, has been eradicated, for now at least. No team has shown better form this month, the 100 per cent record being embellished by stirring wins against Hibs and Celtic.

Maybe he should keep the mouser for good, I say.

"No, this is first time for me and for cancer (awareness and other men's health issues] which is good, but I think it looks terrible. I'm not a superstitious player. Well, not so much any more.

When I was younger - 18 - I would be left shinpad first and everything I could copy from other players and also my father from when he played. That sort of stuff can get a little bit crazy. When I was at Marseilles there was one guy, two minutes before every game, who would clean his teeth. Brush them like mad. I would say: 'Come on now, please, focus for match.' But he never stopped. Maybe he cleaned for the kissing, for the goals."

Surprisingly, remarkably, the 31-year-old and Vladimir Romanov have kissed and made up. Four years ago, after Skacel helped Hearts win the Scottish Cup, they had a big bust-up. He went to England, to hook up with George Burley again at Southampton. While he wound his way around the continent - Germany, back to the Czech Republic, Greece - it was assumed he'd acquired honorary membership of the Riccarton Three and was equally as persona non grata. Fans who'd twirled scarves to acclaim his goals in 2005-06, from Rugby Park opening-day right through to Hampden triumph, weren't even dreaming about "Rudi Returns Shock!" as it was assumed neither player not owner held such a desire.

He smiles. "I think Mr Romanov was surprised to hear from me again and I was surprised to have a chance to come back because last time we didn't finish very well." Four seasons ago, Skacel's arrival was emblematic of Hearts' ambition and his departure was stereotypical of the club's issues.

He won't go into detail about the row, or recount the recent conversation, but says: "It was better we both had a few years to calm down and to realise that, last time, neither of us made everything perfect. But we thought we could try to build a relationship again. We believe we can help each other and I have to thank Mr Romanov, for sure."

There seems little chance of Skacel and Derek Riordan becoming best buddies following the sworn rivals' reunion two weeks ago when the Hibs striker was sent off for chopping him down amid scenes that had reformed casuals and ancient skinheads recalling highly combustible derbies of yore.

What did he think of the tackle? "It was silly and I was just pleased nothing bad happened to me. You know, it's football, it's emotion and that was derby, which could never be ballet. I think he was disappointed for his team. I was just happy I survived this tackle and could celebrate three points with Jambos - my first win at Easter Road."

Previously, as TV melodramas would have it, Skacel held sway in three capital clashes, where each time Hearts netted four, including the Scottish Cup semi-final. This was more than enough to secure him an unsavoury Hibees chant and, during player downtime in a bar, Riordan was filmed for YouTube singing about how his Nemesis was a "refugee".

Has he seen the clip and how did he feel about it? "Yes I've watched. I think this is something silly because probably he's never been in school. He doesn't seem to know where is Czech Republic and where is Prague.

My parents are teachers. To help his education, maybe they can make some lessons for him. They're geography teachers, by the way.

"I was surprised there was such a big scandal. Other people were more upset than me; they thought it was a form of racism. But it's not correct what he did and it should not be involved in football, which is a great game. Hibs sent me a letter saying sorry, but he never said anything to me afterwards, nor in last derby when you saw what he did. Maybe some people like to think that was Refugees vs Scots, but who won?"

Of course, Skacel can't quite play the complete innocent here. In the manner of the teacher's pet, he perhaps picked up too many of the missiles and handed them to the referee - actions which some Hibs players reckoned further inflamed the situation. He also made an L for losers gesture to Hibs fans, but seems unrepentant about this. "I couldn't fight them or stop them throwing things, so I had to do something to make them realise that what they do is stupid. I was hit only by a lighter but kids go to football and they could be hurt."

So was that the most explosive derby match in which he's been involved? "Oh no, this was just a small shower! Playing for Panathinaikos at Olympiakos was the worst. There the fans throw everything, even mobiles, seats, anything they can find. They can be on the pitch and you can't imagine how bad it is. One time our goalkeeper was knocked out and needed stitches. Marseilles vs Paris St Germain could be bad too and I've also played for Slavia Prague against Sparta. I love derbies everywhere. After we beat Hibs - okay, maybe it wasn't a classic game - but our fans were so excited, so happy."

There were only three days between the Edinburgh derby and the Celtic match but this was sufficient time for our more excitable journals to dredge up an old confrontation between Skacel and Neil Lennon when the latter was still playing and the Hearts man was accused of spitting at him.

"Anything can happen on the pitch - it's football, it's emotion," he reiterates. "I remember he made some very bad tackles in that game before, and he should have been sent off ten minutes before the tackle on me. But I can swear for my parents that I never spat at him." Lennon said in the run-up to the 2-0 defeat that the incident was in the past and that he'd shake Skacel's hand, a gesture made trickier by the manager being sent to the stand shortly after Skacel had provided the cross for the decisive goal. "So we never got to shake hands but it's good what he said so maybe next time."

Never go back, that's what they say. But Lennon has come back, Riordan too, and so has Rudi, who was christened Rudolf after his father. "People say this in case you spoil your name, but I had confidence in how I was playing. I'd already gone back to Slavia and that had worked well, with me getting back into Czech national team. In football at any time you have to think week to week.

You cannot think what a nice game you had last week and you really can not think what a nice game you had four years ago.

"But, of course, I had a good memories from last time. Of the city: I think of Edinburgh as being Little Prague. And now it has trams, too. Well, one which always you can catch on Princes Street (the stationary display vehicle for the much-delayed system]. And good memories of Hearts, a family club with great supporters."

Skacel - who grew up in Hradec Kralove close to Prague and from the age of eight attended a sports academy combining football and cross-country skiing with formal studies - is a proud Czech who is desperate to add to his five caps. He was devastated to miss out on the 2006 World Cup when he was banging in so many goals for Hearts - 16 from the midfield. Now, though, the national team is being re-built following the retirement of the Pavel Nedved generation.

"My ambition is the 2012 European Championships. Before qualifying started, I played in two friendlies for Mr (Michal] Bilek and feel that under him I have more of a chance." With his future then uncertain, Skacel wasn't selected against Scotland for the notorious 4-6-0 game. What did he think of our tactics? "You made it easy for us because we were under pressure, so thanks very much. Scotland didn't deserve anything from the match and I think to play without one striker in a big competition is embarrassing."

There's obviously an international language among footballers which, at least as long as they're still playing, precludes dwelling on the past and what might have been. Of 2005-06 and Hearts' electric start when Skacel was virtually unplayable, he says: "The fans like to dream that we could have won the SPL if everything had stayed the same (translation: if Burley hadn't been sacked]. Maybe, but we didn't and it's gone now. We won the Scottish Cup, which was a special day for a special group - Elvis (Steven Pressley], Zico (Paul Hartley] and the others - and I hope some time there can be a nice occasion which brings us all together again.

"But right now I'm only thinking about 2010-11 and this young team and our good gaffer and how I can help Tynecastle became a castle again so that we can try to be third best in Scotland, qualify for Europa League and, yes, maybe have more fun in the Cup."

Jim Jefferies may have been surprised when Skacel rocked up but he must have been delighted to see him score that hat-trick against St Mirren. "Only the second of my career, the first was last year for Slavia, so maybe in my thirties, hat-tricks will be the thing. At half-time, gaffer told me to go out an score a third.

'Only one problem,' I said, 'we're Gorgie Road End and it never happens for me there - this is a big joke, ask anyone.' He told me it was an imaginary trouble and he was right."

Jeffries, too, was chuffed with his performance in the derby, praising him afterwards for a nullifying job that had probably gone unseen - not to be confused, of course, with his highly visible contributions to that rumbustious affair.

Rudi Skacel, I'm sure you'll agree, has a good command of English and, just as important, football-speak. I ask him if he knows what I mean by the phrase "wind-up merchant"? "Me? Well, I like to entertain." So when this inveterate shirt-doffer stripped down to his pants to celebrate a derby goal, that was entertainment? "Ha ha, I was young! Maybe in these hard times, in credit crunch, football has to do more, give the fans something extra - for theatre. But if other teams' fans don't like this, then I'm sorry."

As the man says: it's football, it's emotion, it can sometimes be theatre but it can never, ever be ballet.

Taken from the Scotsman

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