If you were to pinpoint the moment Rudolf Skacel’s journey from relative unknown to a place in Heart of Midlothian folklore began, it would be 7th August 2005.
Thirteen minutes into the second league game — and first Edinburgh derby — of the new season, a shot by Skacel’s compatriot Roman Bednar sparked a scramble for the goal-line when it deflected off and looped over Hibs’ despairing goalkeeper Zibi Malkowski. Skacel was the quickest to react, prodding the ball into the empty net for his first goal on the hallowed turf of Tynecastle Park.
As he wheeled off in celebration, the Czech stopped dead in his tracks, turned to face the baying green and white mob in the Roseburn end, kissed the badge and defiantly pointed them to the nearest exit. It was Rudi’s first notable action in a maroon jersey and a perfect foreshadowing of what was to follow nearly seven years later.
Skacel arrived at Hearts in July 2005 on loan from Marseille, the club he signed for in 2003 after starting his professional career in his native Czech Republic, firstly for FC Hradec Králové and then Slavia Prague, with whom he won the Czech Cup, beating city rivals Sparta in the final.
Despite the French outfit parting with €2.5m for his services, the midfielder’s time in France was short-lived and after manager Alain Perrin was relieved of his duties, he was shipped out on loan to Panathinaikos in Greece. It was here that Skacel would receive his only taste of the Champions League group stages, playing five times — twice against Arsenal’s Invincibles — and scoring in a 2–2 draw away to Rosenborg of Norway.
During Skacel’s spell in Greece, Panathinaikos finished the domestic season a mere point behind champions Olympiacos, with the Czech scoring five times in 26 appearances across all competitions. Unfortunately, that return did little to persuade the Greek club to make his stay permanent and with Marseille seemingly uninterested in his services, he was on the lookout for another loan move the following summer: cue George Burley’s new-look Heart of Midlothian.
Season 2005–06: A Fleeting Romance
Although stationed out on the left of Hearts’ midfield, Skacel immediately demonstrated the kind of ruthless goal-scoring instinct that many strikers in the league would have envied. As a result, he enjoyed a blistering start to his Hearts career in concurrence with the team’s own sensational early-season form, striking up a formidable partnership with Paul Hartley as Burley’s charges enjoyed an 11-game unbeaten run in the league.
During that period, the Czech was untouchable, his left foot packing the kind of devastating power and laser-like precision that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Bond villain’s armoury; only, Skacel’s weapon wasn’t merely for show and was responsible for an impressive hit-rate of nine goals, including one in each of his first seven starts.
Even at this early stage, title aspirations had appeared on the horizon and Hearts were flooring it down the road. That was until the owner of the vehicle, seemingly perturbed by the passengers’ chorus of praise about his driver, opted for a change at the wheel.
On 22nd October 2005, with Hearts top of the league and unbeaten in their opening round of fixtures (which included a notable home win against Rangers and a draw away to Celtic) George Burley left his position and was replaced by Graham Rix.
From this point, the wheel nuts started to rattle and although Skacel’s initial goal-scoring rate would have been difficult to sustain over the course of a full season, it is no coincidence that it began to slow at this stage.
The Czech found the net a further six times in the second round of league fixtures and after scoring his 16th goal in January during the third Edinburgh derby of the season, embarked on a drought that would last until the final day and have a noticeable impact on Hearts’ title hopes.
An inconsistent four months (in which Hearts dropped 24 of 48 available points) preceded a second managerial change, with Rix, who earlier had revealed owner Vladimir Romanov’s interference in team affairs, being replaced by Valdas Ivanauskas.
Although Hearts’ form picked up slightly in the latter stages of the season (which included an emphatic 4–0 Scottish Cup semi-final win over Hibs) any remaining title hopes had all but fizzled out as Hearts focused their energy on keeping Rangers at bay in third to split the Old Firm for the first time in the SPL era.
By this stage, it was looking increasingly likely that Skacel’s future lay outside of Edinburgh and in what many believed would be his last appearance as a Hearts player, he signed off in style, scoring the opening goal and contributing to the resulting penalty shootout in the Scottish Cup Final victory over Gretna.
2006–2010: From Soton to Berlin
Despite the club exercising an option to sign him from Marseille on a permanent deal, Skacel’s swift departure seemed inevitable when he was left out of Hearts’ pre-season plans; on 29 July 2006, that departure was confirmed when he joined English Championship side Southampton for £1.6m, reuniting with former boss Burley in the process.
After playing in each of Southampton’s league games during the first half of the Championship campaign, scoring three and setting up six, Rudi started to find himself in and out of the team after New Year, though still finished his first season in England with 40 appearances across all competitions.
That intermittent involvement in the first team continued the following season, however, and with Gareth Bale having departed St Mary’s for Tottenham Hotspur at the tail end of the previous season, Skacel was often required to play in a more unnatural left back position.
In January 2008, Skacel’s future on the south coast looked increasingly uncertain when Burley left to take charge of the Scottish national team. With the man who brought him to the club gone, and fearing a lack of first-team football would affect his chances of a place in the Czech Republic’s Euro 2008 squad, Skacel requested a loan move and saw out the season with German Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin. The move had the desired effect and Skacel was selected by Karel Brückner for the summer tournament, though failed to make a single appearance as the Czechs dropped out at the group stage.
Skacel returned to Southamption for the 2008–09 season and made another 29 appearances — bringing his total to 87 — but was released from his contract when the club’s relegation to League One was confirmed. Short-lived spells at former club Slavia and Greek club Larissa yielded a combined 12 appearances the following season and by the time the 2010–11 campaign came around, Skacel was without a club, leading to what would once have seemed like the unlikeliest of returns to his spiritual home.
2010–2012: The Second Coming
Given how much of the discourse focused on reparation with Romanov, the extent of manager Jim Jefferies’ involvement in the decision to re-sign Skacel is questionable at best, not that it would have made any difference to the approving majority in the stands. If there were any lingering superstitions about “never going back”, they were dispelled only 12 minutes into Skacel’s first start when he opened the scoring against Rangers in a manner strangely reminiscent of his first goal at Tynecastle in 2005.
Having opened the season in erratic fashion, Jefferies’ side had reached late October without a home win in four attempts. Skacel, now operating primarily as a number 10, played an instrumental role in ending that barren run with a hat-trick against St Mirren, which he wrapped up with his maiden goal at the Gorgie Road end.
Following a 3–0 home defeat to Kilmarnock, Hearts embarked on an unbeaten run of 10 wins and a draw, which saw Skacel score three times, lay on a further three to his team-mates (including both goals in a 2–0 win over Celtic) and, perhaps most notably, re-acquaint himself with the neighbours, not that there was ever a possibility they had forgotten who he was.
Although their initial meeting at Tynecastle may not have ingratiated Skacel to the Hibs fans, there had never been any ostensible reason for targeting Skacel in particular for abuse. Nevertheless, the Czech very quickly forged a special place inside the heads of Hibernian supporters, who marked a 2–0 derby win during Skacel’s first spell in Edinburgh with a chant that rather ignorantly branded the Czech a “refugee”.
Whether it was his talent, his love affair with the Hearts supporters or a combination of the two — and the fact that it offered an unwelcome reminder that they were being subjected to Edwin de Graaf and Jonathan Grounds — that sentiment was still strong when Hearts visited Easter Road in November 2010. It was a feeling shared by Hibs striker and recently-appointed captain Derek Riordan, who had been forced to apologise to Skacel five years previously after he was filmed joining Hibs fans in the aforementioned ditty.
Having been handed the captain’s armband in a somewhat vain attempt by Colin Calderwood to instil in him a sense of responsibility and level-headedness, Riordan repaid his manager’s faith by losing the plot at the first sign of adversity.
With Hearts two goals up and coasting in the latter stages of the game, Riordan supplied the icing on the cake when he scythed his Czech foe down to earn a straight red card, provoking a shower of lighters and coins in Skacel’s direction from the home sections. Skacel’s response — a loser sign with his thumb and forefinger — was equal parts childish and beautifully dismissive. His lease under the Easter Road faithful’s collective skin had been extended indefinitely.
After the unbeaten run was brought to an abrupt end in a 4–0 defeat away to Celtic, Hearts recorded only four more wins in the remaining 16 games, their early season form leaving just enough in the tank to get them over the line in the hunt for third place and European football. In that time, Skacel added another six goals to his tally and finished the season as the club’s top scorer with 13.
Despite lingering doubts over his future at the club, Skacel signed a six-month contract extension in August 2011 and opened his account for the season when he came off the bench to score his first and only European goal for Hearts against Hungarian side Paksi.
With injury limiting his pre-season involvement, Skacel would be restricted to only one start (away to Tottenham in the Europa League) and four league appearances from the bench in the early stages of the season. Although it would be October before he made his first league start at home to Celtic, any concerns that Skacel’s powers had started to fade were alleviated when he opened the scoring in a 2–0 win with the kind of rasping drive Hearts fans had come to expect from him.
In fact, throughout a largely uninspiring league campaign, the 32-year old’s left wand was often the main source of magic. Four goals in nine league appearances across October and December preceded a similar return in January, starting with his first goal at Easter Road to cap a 3–1 Edinburgh Derby win and culminating in further torment for St Mirren a couple of weeks later.
Trailing 2–1 and facing the unenviable task of playing for nearly 80 minutes with ten men (following a 12th minute red card for captain Marius Zaliukas), Skacel produced one of his best individual performances in maroon, scoring his second hat-trick against the Buddies in as many seasons to inspire Hearts to a remarkable 5–2 victory.
Not content with bowing out on particular high point, he signed another contract extension two weeks later, keeping him at the club until the end of the season.
A further nine goals would follow in that time, five of which came in Hearts’ Scottish Cup run: two in the quarter final draw and subsequent replay against St Mirren (which took his tally against the Paisley men to 10) and the opener in the semi-final win over Celtic. The crowning moment, however, came on 19th May 2012, when Hampden played host to the biggest Edinburgh Derby of all time.
For Hearts, defeat was simply not an option. For Hibs, their Scottish Cup record unblemished by success for well over a century, the opportunity to finally lay their hands on that elusive trophy at the expense of their closest rivals was everything they had ever dreamed of. Unfortunately for the green and white half of Hampden, those dreams were about to take a nightmarish turn, with Skacel playing the role of Freddy Krueger.
If the Czech’s first strike to put Hearts 2–0 up inflicted only superficial wounds, his second (and Hearts fifth on the day) dealt the fatal blow, leaving green and white bodies strewn across the pitch in his wake. Whereas Skacel had felt obliged to point the Hibs fans in the direction of the exits on 7th August 2005, this time he had no need to: they were already showing themselves out, as he bathed in the acclaim of the Hearts supporters for the 47th and final time in a maroon jersey.
Top scorer once again with his highest-ever tally of 18 goals and a second Scottish Cup winner’s medal in his hand having played a pivotal role in his side’s 5–1 thrashing of their biggest rivals, it was a valediction befitting a legend.
2012–2019: Heart Still In Gorgie
Skacel would remain in Scotland, though without his maroon cape, his impact was minimal; his love affair with Heart of Midlothian, however, would endure even in other teams’ colours.
With Dundee United, his decision to select 51 as his squad number drew enmity from the green and white half of Edinburgh and forced a public apology from his manager Peter Houston. Soon after, in his first appearance at Tynecastle since leaving, Skacel applauded the Hearts fans as he left the pitch to a standing ovation, which did little to curry favour with United’s travelling supporters, their jeering largely drowned out by the proclamations of love flowing from the home sections.
It was also during his time at Tannadice that Skacel’s eternal bond with Hearts would see him go above and beyond the call of duty, turning up at Brauhaus after United’s match against Hibs to pull pints for a supporters’ fundraising event in the dark days leading up to administration.
Following short spells back in his homeland with Slavia and Mlada Boleslav, Skacel returned to Scotland in 2016 to sign for Raith Rovers, reuniting with former Hearts coach Gary Locke. He would return to Easter Road one last time and despite having little impact on the game itself, made sure he provided the home fans with one last reminder of that day in May as he left the pitch.
A further two meetings with Hearts came in the Scottish Cup, Skacel ensuring he would have one final outing at his spiritual home when he came on in the final 10 minutes of the initial tie at Starks Park to set up a late equaliser and force a replay at Tynecastle a few days later. His final fling would be almost as brief, appearing off the bench for the final 20 minutes of extra time as Hearts won 4-2, before riding off into the sunset to spend the final years of his career with Czech side 1.FK Pribram.
Children who idolised him, men who once offered up their wives and girlfriends to him, women who would have left their husbands and boyfriends for him, will all tell their children and grandchildren of his greatness. Skacel’s playing days may now have reached their conclusion, but his legacy in Gorgie will continue for generations.
For Rudi Skacel’s Hearts statistics, visit his London Hearts page.