BY ANTHONY BROWN
“Oh, I spoke to Mikoliunas earlier,” Andrius Velicka smiles, inadvertently confirming that links to his time at Hearts remain intact some 13 years on from his Tynecastle departure. “We play his team this weekend (Zalgiris Vilnius). I told him he must play bad!”
Velicka, approaching his 42nd birthday, hung up his boots a few years ago, in his late 30s, and is now a coach at Hegelmann Litauen, a Kaunas-based club in Lithuania’s top flight managed by former Dunfermline Athletic player Andrius Skerla. A laidback character with a thick Eastern European accent, Velicka is looking forward to his reunion later today (Saturday 20th March) with the perennially baby-faced Saulius Mikoliunas, who is still going strong for Zalgiris, aged 36. Velicka and Miko, of course, were among a significant Lithuanian contingent who played for Hearts in the mid-to-late Noughties, during the barmiest phase of Vladimir Romanov’s rollercoaster eight-year reign as owner of the Edinburgh club. I enquire whether he keeps in touch with many old colleagues from his Hearts days. “(Nerijus) Barasa lives in Russia now, I speak to Kestutis (Ivaskevicius)... but everyone has families and jobs now so we don’t speak so much,” says Velicka, speaking via video call from his home in Kaunas.
Tragically, the former Hearts team-mate Velicka was closest to has passed away. Marius Zaliukas succumbed to motor neurone disease in October 2020, aged just 36 - the same age Mikoliunas currently is. Velicka stayed in close contact with Zaliukas way beyond their time as Hearts colleagues, with the 2012 Scottish Cup-winning captain regularly visiting Velicka, his wife and his daughter at their home for dinner and a catch-up. Velicka was aware of Zaliukas’s illness and regrets that he was unable to say a final farewell to his stricken fellow former Lithuania internationalist as he cocooned himself away with close family members in the closing years of his life. “I tried to call and text him but I heard nothing back,” says Velicka, visibly upset when reflecting on the death of his long-time friend almost five months ago. “I feel sad that me and my family - my daughter (now 18) also got on well with him - did not get a chance to say goodbye to him.” Velicka attended the funeral in November. “It was during the pandemic, so there were restrictions, ten people at a time and things like that,” he explains. “I made flowers with the colours of Hearts and Rangers.”
The emergence of a talisman
Zaliukas and Velicka both played for Hearts and Rangers, albeit the striker’s time at Ibrox (which also incorporated a short loan spell at Aberdeen) came while the defender was still busy growing into a modern-day Hearts legend. The two Kaunas boys travelled to Edinburgh to begin their respective Scottish adventures within a few days of each other in the summer of 2006. “Marius went to Hearts about a week before me,” recalls Velicka of a period in which Ivaskevicius and Tomas Kancelskis also joined Hearts, swelling a Lithuanian contingent that already included Mikoliunas, Deividas Cesnauskis and Edgaras Jankauskas. Several others would follow in what was one of the most tumultuous periods in Hearts’ history. The number of Lithuanians in the squad became a bone of contention, with supporters, media and, at times, team-mates deeming that several of the imports were not of the required standard. Velicka and Zaliukas bucked the trend in this regard, albeit the defender required more time than the striker to prove his worth in Edinburgh. While young Zaliukas initially struggled, Velicka - 27 and already established as a free-scoring striker at hometown team FBK Kaunas - made a positive impression from the outset, emerging from the substitutes’ bench to score as a trialist in his first appearance: a 2-0 pre-season friendly win over Spanish side Osasuna at Murrayfield in July 2006. That was also the night on which Zaliukas made his first Hearts appearance. “I was on trial at Hearts maybe two or three times before I actually signed,” explains Velicka. “I enjoyed being there because I always wanted to play in the UK. Scotland suited my style of play but I never felt I would go to Hearts and be a top player. I was thinking it would be good just to go to Hearts and be a sub and play a little bit. I never thought I would score a lot of goals and become like a leader of the team.”
Velicka exceeded his own expectations during a little over a year and half in Scotland. He swiftly established himself as a talisman at Hearts, becoming one of the few players in this period able to rise above the seemingly relentless flow of Romanov-inspired chaos behind the scenes. Discontent among senior players over the way the owner was running the club grew to the extent that Steven Pressley, Craig Gordon and Paul Hartley (now infamously dubbed The Riccarton Three) read out a remarkable statement to the media outlining “significant unrest within the dressing-room”. This was in October 2006, just a few months after Velicka’s arrival. It was all water off a duck’s back to the Lithuanian, who was simply revelling in the chance to showcase his prolific goal-scoring form to a wider audience. “I had known Romanov for a long time so, for me, what was happening at Hearts was not strange,” says Velicka. “I was thinking just about the football. I had found out I could play at a higher level than Lithuania so I was just enjoying playing for Hearts. That was a great feeling for me so I was not thinking about the managerial changes or all the politics. I just wanted to play, score goals and win games.”
Despite the notion of disharmony in the Hearts dressing-room - caused by the remarkable turnover of players, the heavy influx of Lithuanians and the regular change of management - Velicka insists he felt welcome at the club. “It’s normal that in that situation you speak more with other Lithuanians but I didn’t feel the squad was in different sections,” he says. “It was okay for me. Everybody was together. Takis Fyssas and Steven Pressley were good. Neil McCann was very good for me as well. I can’t say anything bad about the guys at Hearts.”
Thriving in the chaos
In his first season, Velicka scored 11 goals as Hearts overcame background adversity to finish fourth. The first of those came a fortnight prior to the Riccarton Three episode, when he scored a double in his first Edinburgh derby: a 2-2 draw at Easter Road in which Hibs led 2-0 through early goals from Merouane Zemmama and Chris Killen before Hearts - despite having Mikoliunas sent off with half an hour to play - roared back for a point. Velicka had announced himself in Edinburgh. “I remember it well,” he says. “To be honest, before the game I didn’t understand that this derby was so big. We were 2-0 down in an away game, I scored two goals and we drew 2-2. I was happy and the team were happy but it was only after the game when the press wanted to speak to me that I recognised what l did. I felt a real connection with the supporters after that. I found I would go to pay for things in shops and people would ask me for my signature or to get a photo with me. I was thinking ‘what’s happening here, man?’ I’d never had that before.”
A few weeks later, Velicka looked like he might be about to go down as the winning goal-scorer at Celtic Park when he put Hearts ahead in the 72nd minute, but Celtic hit back with two goals in the dying stages to win 2-1. He also banged in a hat-trick in a 4-0 Scottish Cup win at Stranraer in January 2007, strengthening his status as Hearts’ main hitman. In a season where few attackers played week in, week out, Velicka was the only one to hit double figures. Czech pair Michal Pospisil and Roman Bednar were the next highest scorers with six apiece. Velicka’s second (partial) season - 2007/08 - was probably the most chaotic of Romanov’s entire reign, but while team-mates wilted amid a toxic atmosphere as rudderless Hearts plummeted into the bottom six under an array of different head coaches, Velicka stepped up and managed to score another 14 goals before moving to Norway in February 2008. His 07/08 exploits included goals in victories away to Motherwell and St Mirren and at home to Falkirk and Aberdeen while his most impressive night’s work came on Halloween 2007 when he scored a brilliantly-executed double in a 2-0 waway to Celtic in a League Cup quarter-final. He also struck in a 1-1 home draw with Celtic and netted the winner in his last Edinburgh derby, a 1-0 success at Tynecastle in January 2008.
A double in a 2-0 home win over Gretna in his penultimate outing for Hearts took his tally to a hugely impressive 25 goals in just 43 starts (plus 12 sub appearances) in all competitions. “I scored more goals in Lithuania but I think that one and a half seasons at Hearts was the best form of my life,” he reflects. “The best moments were scoring against Hibs, against Rangers, against Celtic. I liked scoring against Hibs and Celtic very much. I really enjoyed playing for Hearts. It’s always good when you score the goals. I remember there was a time when I was the only one scoring the goals but we couldn’t win the games: it seemed like draw, draw, draw. It was good for me personally to be scoring but I was playing for the team, so it was not so good for the team that we weren’t winning enough games.”
Despite not even completing two seasons in Gorgie, Velicka worked under no less than five different “managers”, although Romanov was notorious for pulling the strings from afar. When I reel off the names Valdas Ivanauskas, Eduard Malofeev, Anatoly Korobochka and Stephen Frail, Velicka interjects to point out “remember there was the Bulgarian guy as well.” Angel Chervenkov is the man he has in mind. Velicka smiles when reminded of how many managers he had, a situation that underlines the volatile nature of the club during his time in Edinburgh. Despite tales of Malofeev’s training-ground wheelbarrow races and certain players being consigned to the sidelines for no obvious reason, Velicka feels fortunate that he has no reason to badmouth anyone he worked with during what, for him, was a hugely fulfilling and career-enhancing spell at Tynecastle. “I can’t say a bad thing about any of the managers I worked under,” says Velicka. “For me personally, they were good. I was playing and scoring goals, so they were all okay for me.” Aware that some of his former colleagues might not be so complimentary about those tasked with taking the team in this particular period, he smiles: “Maybe not for everybody, but, for me, they were good. I also had good team-mates - everybody was good: Takis Fyssas, Paul Hartley, Neil McCann, Steven Pressley, Christophe Berra. I still write to Christophe occasionally on social media actually.”
Hearts supporters, who viewed Velicka as their team’s only genuine goal threat, were left deflated when the lethal Lithuanian was sold to Norwegian side FK Viking for around £1 million in February 2008, leaving Frail’s side to muddle through the rest of a demoralising season with Christian Nade, Calum Elliot and Ricardas Beniusis as the only remaining recognised strikers. “I never wanted to leave,” he says. “Burnley were hoping to buy me at the end of that season when Owen Coyle was the manager, but Hearts said I needed to go to Norway because they wanted the money. I could have said ‘no, I don’t want to go’, but you know what Romanov is like. I could have ended up sitting in the stand for half a year. I would have preferred to stay at Hearts but I had to go.”
In a career that spanned almost two decades, Velicka pinpoints his 19-month spell at Hearts - in which he marked himself out as one of the club’s outstanding 21st century strikers to date - as the pinnacle. “Hearts was a happy time for me, the best time in my career,” he says. “I liked everything at Hearts. In Lithuania and in Russia, I never had feelings like I had at Hearts. Every game, 16,000 fans, amazing.”
While the buzz he gets from coaching will never match the thrill of leading the Hearts attack, Velicka is grateful that, by being involved in professional sport, he has been able to keep working throughout the bulk of the pandemic. “Like everywhere, it’s shit,” he says, when asked what state Lithuania is currently in. “For three months, we’ve been completely closed. The kids don’t go to school.”
In addition to his two roles as coach at Hegelmann Litauen and head coach of Lithuania’s Under-15s, Velicka still finds time to follow the fortunes of a team took to his heart. “I always keep an eye out for Hearts,” he says. “I know they are first in the league, 15 points ahead of Dunfermline. I watched the cup final against Celtic on TV,” he says, before smiling mischievously. “Bastards, the green bastards!”
If you enjoyed this interview and would like to read reflections from other Hearts icons, treat yourself to Reminiscing with Legends, the story of Hearts’ exhilarating journey to Scottish Cup glory in 1998. You can purchase now via the Products option at the top of this page. Anthony Brown is also working on a new book with Hearts’ 2012 Scottish Cup-winning squad. You can keep up to date with its progress by following @NineteenFiveTwelve on Twitter or Facebook.