For a press pack becoming weary of the revolving door affixed to the manager’s office at Hearts, the appointment of Paulo Sergio signaled another foreign face brought into the game at the behest of Vladimir Romanov.
The relatively unknown Portuguese, spotted once before on these shores in an ignominious defeat to Rangers which led to his sacking at Sporting CP of Lisbon, looked more likely destined to join the chorus of “Mad Vlad’s Cast of Thousands” than lead the challenge to the Old Firm which Romanov so craved.
He had replaced Jim Jefferies, a legend at Heart of Midlothian as an ex-captain and the man who steered them to the 1998 Scottish Cup, Hearts’ first silverware in 36 years.
Jefferies was close and friendly with the media and revered by the Tynecastle support. Sergio was being judged on the merits of his predecessor before he had even slipped on the club tie for the first time.
The first trick Sergio pulled was his total deference to Jefferies. Impressing the sports corps with his fluent English, he told them of his respect for “Mr Jim”. His knowledge of Jefferies’ achievements, and by extension the Scottish game, was unusual.
Sergio’s maiden victory was an emphatic 4-1 Europa League victory over Paks of Hungary. Jefferies and his assistant Billy Brown had laid the foundations with a 1-1 draw abroad, and after the match Sergio immediately dedicated the victory to Jefferies. His charm offensive was complete, and he moved on to reshaping the way Hearts played.
That did not go so smoothly. Sergio quickly realised the stumbling blocks of attempting to impose a European style of possession play on a Scottish team raised on blood-and-snotters direct football. Tiki-taka is not much use when Adrian Mrowiec is holding the midfield.
The fans became vocal in their opposition to patient ball play. Headline summer signing John Sutton was virtually frozen out while Sergio drilled his methods into the squad.
Results did not follow despite the mature approach and, after defeat to Ayr United in the league cup followed by a breathtakingly insipid showing at McDiarmid Park, in which St Johnstone won 2-0, Sergio discovered that the majority of the goodwill from the stands had dried up after just seven weeks at the helm.
Enter Rudi Skacel. The Czech gave Sergio the perfect compromise between possession play and effective attack. The two were said not to see eye-to-eye as Skacel, another darling of the support, was being benched for big games. A typical Exocet of a left foot strike to set up a 2-0 win over Celtic forced Sergio’s hand and Skacel would go on to be top scorer for the season.
A fortnight later, Sergio’s task changed completely as the club became mired in controversy over late wage payments, financial struggles and an owner who declared he was no longer interested in propping up a club which was in debt to the tune of nearly £30 million.
Ryan Stevenson very publicly jumped ship, others were expected to follow, but Sergio stepped in and persuaded them to weather the storm. The manager saw Eggert Jonsson sold to Wolves, Janos Balogh and Kevin Kyle were released and first-choice goalkeeper Marian Kello was frozen out after turning down a deadline day move to Austria Vienna.
But a bond was being forged through the tribulations. Sergio was never afraid to tell the media how difficult he found the conditions to work under but frequently and passionately told them “I love this club”.
Tales of Ian Black seeking alternative employment as a painter and decorator to top up his cash were turned by the squad and the fans to show unity and stoicism against the backdrop of “crisis” headlines.
The cup run which led to Sergio’s crowning moment at Tynecastle owed as much to luck as it did to the team spirit he had now created. Last-minute penalties against St Johnstone and Celtic brought Hearts to face capital rivals Hibernian at Hampden.
It was very much Sergio’s day, his side running out 5-1 victors as the 24,000 Hearts fans sang his name. Sergio was hoisted into the air by the jubilant players before the team embarked on a celebratory parade through the streets of the capital.
As the champagne corks still flew, he told STV of his frustration that a new deal had not been agreed with the club.
Privately, he suspected that he would not return from his “holiday” back to see his family in Lisbon. He had confided in staff close to him at Tynecastle that initial talks with the board were not good.
He wanted to stay, and he meant it, but the money on offer was a drastic reduction on the deal which had just finished. He even offered up keepsakes of his cup final weekend to people around the club. Sergio was already saying goodbye.
Today he is left with the memories of a remarkable nine months in Scotland. His trusted assistants Sergio Cruz and Alberto Cabral’s pictures and videos of the cup parade, and KC and the Sunshine Band’s adapted hit ringing in his ears.
Sergio would do well to remember his own thoughts on the chop-and-change world of football, and particular the working environment of Hearts where the fans are preparing to welcome a tenth full-time boss in eight years.
Describing the dismay of the fans at losing a hero in Jefferies, Sergio told the media in his first appearance after being appointed: “I'm glad that they aren't satisfied with the change because that is the sign of their character, they respect Mr Jim a lot, as I do.
“The same thing I can say to our fans is that it is the sign of character of our fans that they respect who works for Hearts and most of all a legend like Jim.
“So, one day, if I am sacked from some place I would like to leave the way Jim left, with the feeling of the fans the way they felt for Jim."
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