ROBBIE NEILSON is adamant the memory of Marius Zaliukas will live forever at Tynecastle after the Hearts family said a poignant farewell to their former captain.
The Edinburgh outfit held a private service on Thursday morning to celebrate the life of Zaliukas, who passed away last week following a brave battle with Motor Neurone Disease. He was just 36 years of age.
The ceremony took place in the Memorial Garden at Tynecastle Park, with head coach Neilson, owner Ann Budge and director of football Jim Jefferies, who made the Lithuanian defender skipper during his time as boss, among those in attendance.
A group of Zaliukas’ former teammates and coaches, including Ryan McGowan, Ian Black, Ryan Stevenson, Gary Locke and Jamie MacDonald were also present as they shared memories of the popular figure and listened to a sermon by club chaplain Andy Prime.
Zaliukas’ funeral was taking place in Lithuania simultaneously as Hearts paid their respects.
“It was a poignant ceremony,” said Neilson. “I knew Marius personally and a few ex-players came along. It was nice to listen to all the tributes from the players – and they were all true.
“When Marius came over there were a lot of foreign players, a lot of Lithuanian players in particular, and only a few of them really took to the group, opened up and became part of the club. Marius was one of those.
“He was a lovable, really funny guy.
“At times he was daft as a brush and full of energy in the dressing room. But he really appreciated the opportunity to come to Scotland and play football at a high level.
“If he was able to walk into Tynecastle today, he would be larger than life – so it’s just devastating for everybody.
“We had our service at the same time as his funeral over in Lithuania and we send our best wishes out there to his family. He had a wife and a young kid so it’s a difficult time for everybody.”
As Neilson addressed the press inside Tynecastle, tributes were being added to the growing collection of strips, scarves and messages which have been left outside the stadium by mourning supporters.
Neilson insists the outpouring of emotion which has followed Zaliukas’ passing underlines the legendary status he will always enjoy in Gorgie.
“Marius is a big part of this club and will remain a big part of this club forever,” continued Neilson.
“I remember he had a difficult start to his career at Hearts but his character was strong and he got over the challenges at the start
“He progressed and matured, his concentration levels got better and he became one of the best central defenders Hearts have had for a very long time.
“It was a testament to him that he got through that difficult period because a lot of people would have thrown the towel in and left.
“But Marius stayed, worked hard and believed in himself – and as a result, he left here as a legend.”
Craig Gordon, a former teammate of Zaliukas’, also attended the ceremony and emerged from the Main Stand entrance afterwards to witness some of the tributes which now illuminate Foundation Plaza.
“It was nice to be able to mark the day of Marius’ funeral with some of his ex-players and coaches who worked with him,” said a sombre Gordon.
“It was sad, but also nice to be able to talk about Marius and listen to the stories about him. He was a wonderful player for this club.
“He will be remembered forever after winning the Scottish Cup in one of the biggest games – if not the biggest game – the club has ever played.
“Tears were shed by the boys who knew him well and played with him for a lot longer than I did.”
PAULO SERGIO: WE HAVE LOST OUR BROTHER
Meanwhile, Paulo Sergio has recalled Zaliukas’ beaming smile and infectious personality
Zaliukas is assured legendary status in Gorgie as the captain who led the club to Hampden glory in 2012, defeating Hibernian 5-1 at Hampden in the Scottish Cup final.
And his boss that day, Sergio, sent an emotional message from Portugal, where he now manages Portimonense, to be published on Hearts’ social media channels.
He said: “It’s a very sad moment to lose our brother, Marius.
“It is a moment when we don’t have too many words. We can only remember what is in our hearts.
“He was a great guy, a very good professional player and a wonderful player for Hearts during my time there. He is the legend who picked up this huge trophy for Hearts after that 5-1 win at Hampden. Those are memories we will never forget.
“Every morning he would be in a good mood, ready for work and ready to help his teammates. The huge thing I will remember is his smile every day – like a clown, joking with everybody, but with a great attitude towards the work too.
“It is such a shame to lose such a young man. My thoughts are with his family and the whole Hearts family. We will never forget him.”