As soon as I had the time I wanted to get on here and talk up my new main man Csaba Laszlo. I want to stress before I go on that I was not motivated by the recent PFA Scotland Manager of the Year nominations, I would have written most of what follows in any case.
Last week the nominations were released, with the Hearts manager a surprise omission. Instead, Gordon Strachan, the Celtic boss who already has this season’s League Cup under his belt, was nominated along with St. Johnstone manager Derek McInnes and last year’s winner Billy Reid. The disadvantages of having the vote six weeks before the season’s end have become apparent, especially after the weekend’s results. Reid could still see his side relegated from their first ever campaign in the SPL, and St. Johnstone are beginning to show the same signs of choking as they did two seasons ago when they eventually surrendered their lead to Gretna and missed out on promotion. Strachan is chasing his fourth title in as many years at Celtic Park but is a mere one point ahead of, what some have claimed is, the worst Rangers side for many years.
At the risk of sounding biased, I was shocked when Csaba’s name was not among those nominated. In July when Csaba Laszlo was unveiled as the new manager of Hearts, the club was in turmoil. The support had been starved of a full-time manager for almost two and a half years and some could have been excused for being highly suspicious of Csaba after being promised a British, or at least a British style manager. Csaba has not only stabilised things, he has completely turned the club around. Adding to his squad only two outfield players and two goalkeepers, he has taken a team that finished in eighth place last season to one on the verge of finishing third and clinching a place in next season’s re-branded Europa League.
Exiting both cups in the early stages may have worked against Csaba being considered for the above award but surely his performance in the league alone, including his record against the Old Firm (unbeaten in the last four against the Glasgow sides) and the fact that Hearts have only lost two home matches all season, all this with a lack of a strikeforce, should have been enough.
Csaba is now the longest serving manager of the Romanov era – not the greatest claim to fame, there really isn’t much competition – and seems to be the only one so far, less the puppets such as Eduard Malofeev and Korobochka, who has been able to have a working relationship with the owner. However, this could be down to the Russian-born Lithuanian tycoon taking more of a backseat in affairs at Tyncecastle and is finally letting the man in charge do what he is employed to do.
Half hour press conferences, four minute answers to single questions in post-match interviews, touchline antics and post-match celebrations that are all dripping with a passion for the game seem to have filtered through to the players and this has shown, not only with the commitment and never-say-die attitude shown in each performance but the aforementioned home record – only Celtic and Kilmarnock have managed to take three points away from Tynecastle this season. Moreover, the same players who last season would have crumbled after going 1-0 down early on in matches have kept their heads up and gone on to take points. In recent weeks Kilmarnock and Celtic have taken early leads, only for Hearts to take the game to their opponents straight from the restart. One of the most notable of such occasions was when Hearts managed to turn a 1-0 half-time score into an important 2-1 win over Aberdeen in the battle for third place.
Working with youngsters was highlighted as one of Csaba’s strengths when he took the reins at Tynecastle but some in the Hearts support have been disappointed with the lack of youth players who have made appearances this season. In Csaba’s defence, the Hearts first team squad is already on the young side, this was especially so at the start of the season before the most experienced campaigner Robbie Neilson returned from injury. Protecting young players as they make the step up is something Csaba speaks of regularly, citing striker Gary Glen as an example. He has pointed out that too much first team exposure too soon can be counterproductive, hindering rather than aiding their progression. Some of the younger players already established as first team regulars have come on leaps and bounds this season with Lee Wallace, still only 21, being arguably the most improved player under the new boss. Andy Driver, nominated for the players’ young player award, is the club’s second top scorer and on his day is as exciting to watch as any other in the league. The versatility of young Icelandic international Eggert Jonsson has been another highlight of the season. In a recent press conference, Csaba said that he thanked God every day for such a player. Jonsson had already shown signs of promise as a central midfielder pre-Csaba but has flourished this season under his leadership, especially when you consider he has played in almost every position apart from his natural one.
The loss of club captain Christophe Berra in January, and lack of a replacement, looked as though it may have weakened the side and subsequently their ambitions of finishing in third but Csaba has taken it in his stride, sacrificing Karipidis from midfield to play alongside Zaliukas. It was unfortunate that Karipidis, a candidate for player of the year in my opinion, had to be sacrificed from the defensive midfield role as this was a masterstroke from Csaba to deploy him there. However, his replacement Ruben Palazuelos has stepped in and performed just as well and has actually been one of the stand-out performers in recent weeks.
The future is certainly looking bright for Hearts’ young squad, although who comes and goes this summer will have a huge bearing on how the team fares next season. Some key players, including Karipidis, Zaliukas (the only two first team central defenders currently at the club), Aguiar and Palazuelos, amongst others will be out of contract in the summer and, if recent transfer windows are anything to go by, it would seem Romanov is now reluctant to splash the cash the manner he did during the 2005/06 campaign. Added to this the fact that it will be difficult for the club to turn down big offers for players like Andy Driver, Lee Wallace and David Obua, should they come in from interested suitors. Hearts could possibly find themselves rebuilding the squad just as it was showing signs of cementing its place as the third force in Scotland and possibly even pushing on further.
Another worry is whether Hearts will be able to hold on to the main man himself. Csaba won the Hungarian Trainer of the Year in his first and only season in charge of Ferencvaros and some in the press have tipped him for the equivalent award in this country, the writers’ award that it. If he keeps up this kind of work it will only be a matter of time before he, like some of his current squad, is attracting interest from bigger clubs.