CSABA LASZLO may have lost the war against Vladimir Romanov – but he is proud to have won the battle to make Christophe Berra his captain.
Laszlo has revealed that Hearts’ eccentric former owner wanted him to strip Berra of the captaincy at the start of the 2008/09 in favour of Marius Zaliukas.
The experienced coach held firm against trigger-happy Romanov’s wishes, common sense prevailed and the gifted young centre-half – just 24 years of age at the time – continued to be the dressing room leader in an often tumultuous period.
History has vindicated Laszlo’s passionate advocacy, with Berra going on to earn a move to Wolves in January 2009 before starring for Ipswich and earning 41 caps for Scotland.
And the Romanian will be among the first to congratulate the no-nonsense stopper if he holds the Scottish Cup aloft at Hampden today to cap his second spell at the club in sensational fashion.
Laszlo recalled: “Christophe was just a young boy when I was at Hearts but already I could see something special in him and I had a big fight to keep him as my captain.
“Mr Romanov wanted to make [Marius] Zaliukas the captain at the start of the season and I was for Christophe. In the end, he accepted my argument about how important Christophe was to the football club.
“Christophe was accepted in the dressing room and deserved that honour. Not only that, but he was a boy from the academy, from Edinburgh, and I wanted to say to the people: ‘I know we have a foreign owner, but we have good Scottish players and we are proud of them’.
“We had a combination of Scottish boys like Mikey Stewart, Lee Wallace, Andrew Driver, with good foreign players like [Christos] Karipidis, Bruno Aguiar, Zaliukas and [Deividas] Cesnauskas. It was very multi-cultural but Christophe was the leader of it all.
“Mr Romanov listened to me and trusted me.”
That relationship ultimately broke down in January 2010 when he refused direct orders to axe Jose Goncalves and was dismissed four days before a League Cup semi-final against St Mirren.
He adds ruefully: “I won that fight for Berra with Mr Romanov, but he won the war. He sacked me.
“That was for one reason – when Goncalves would not sign a new contract, the owner told me he could not play anymore. Jose was one of the best players in Scotland, so I couldn’t do that. That is where I lost my job.”
Having gone their separate ways, Berra did not quite reach the heights of a ‘£20 million’ defender, as Laszlo once outlandishly predicted.
However, the ex-Lithuania, Uganda and Dundee United boss has nothing but praise for the way Berra maximised his potential to become a pivotal player for club and country, crediting that to his tireless work ethic.
“Christophe’s attitude was incredible,” recalled Laszlo. “He used to work every day after training with me, Andrew Driver and some other coaches and, sadly, this was not too common in Scotland.
“He was desperate to learn and recognised that he needed to improve certain things. I always told him ‘do what you do best’ – defend simple, dominate in the air, pass the ball into midfield.
“I knew he could be one of the very best at those things. And he is.
“I have followed his career and am proud of the small part I played in his progress. I will definitely pick a time to call him if Hearts win the cup because I love to see him, and Hearts, succeed.”
And Laszlo, currently out of work after leaving United last September, reckons that sentiment will be shared by the whole of Scottish football.
He added: “I think the Scottish Cup has huge value to a club like Hearts and if Celtic don’t win it, I think everybody will be happy. Otherwise, it is another treble for Celtic – that is very boring.”