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Hearts old boy prepares for mixed reactions as well as emotions

PART of Marius Zaliukas will forever be maroon.

Marius Zaliukas is settling in well at Rangers   Photograph: SNS
Marius Zaliukas is settling in well at Rangers Photograph: SNS

In seven years at Tynecastle, the central defender racked up more than 200 first-team appearances, writing his name into Gorgie folklore by captaining Hearts to their historic 5-1 Scottish Cup final win against Hibs in May 2012.

Consequently he still occasionally refers to the capital outfit as "we", displays more delight than he strictly should that the Easter Road club have joined their city rivals in Scottish football's second tier this season and is bracing himself for mixed emotions when he appears against his former club in the colours of Rangers this lunchtime, the second instalment of a season-opening Edinburgh double-header. "It is a brilliant week for me," he says.

While the affection between the Lithuanian and Hearts was something of a slow burner, it took just seconds for the formal part of the attachment to come to an end.

"I was back home in Lithuania, I received a phone call and they said I was free to go," Zaliukas said about his departure in the summer of 2013. "It was the administrator. He talked to me for two minutes and that was it. I was like 'what to do now?'

"It was early morning. I had probably only got up about half an hour earlier and I still couldn't really understand what he was saying. So I made him explain everything again. I had another six weeks on my contract, so I had been preparing to come for pre-season."

While Rangers had cultivated an interest last summer as well, the 30-year-old's next course of action was to try his luck south of the border. After a spell trying to impress Harry Redknapp at Queens Park Rangers, Zaliukas washed up at Leeds United. Somewhat typically in a career played out to the backdrop of boardroom unrest, his time in Yorkshire saw him first earn an extended deal, then have it ripped up by incoming Italian owner Massimo Cellino.

While he may have been limited to the role of spectator last season as Gary Locke's youngsters bravely battled against the odds, he was hardly a disinterested one. "I was following every game, and watching the highlights," said Zaliukas. "The lads did pretty well and I am sure they will get better and better.

"In fact, when they officially got relegated, Hearts were really starting to play some good football, they were winning everything around that time. I was happy Hibs got relegated, because they had been making fun about Hearts all season."

Zaliukas can count upon former Hearts pals in both dressing rooms. While the likes of Ian Black and David Templeton are former team-mates from Hearts, so is Robbie Neilson, the new occupant of the Tynecastle technical area.

"When I came to Hearts nine years ago Robbie was already there," said Zaliukas. "He is a hard man on the pitch, but honestly off the pitch he is nicer! He is a really hard worker and he will push his team very hard. He is young for a head coach, but I wasn't surprised that he got the job. When I heard that Craig Levein was coming back I thought it was just a matter of time."

Having been rebuffed once, Ally McCoist was not about to take no for an answer for a second time. "The gaffer was really demanding that I should come over here and to be honest I am really happy I made the decision," he said. "I knew half my team-mates already. Now I just want to settle as soon as possible. It doesn't matter which league we are in, there is a really good squad here and every day in training it is as competitive as a game."

Whether the love-in extends to the visiting support at Ibrox remains to be seen. "I am not sure actually!" the Lithuanian said. "I hope so. It would be pleasing if I got a good cheer, but time will tell on that one."

Stewart Fisher

Contextual targeting label: 
Football

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