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|<-Page||<-Team||Sat 11 Mar 2006 Inverness Caledonian Thistle 0 Hearts 0||Team->||Page->|
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|Graham Rix||<-auth||Barry Anderson||auth->||Kevin Toner|
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Rough road but Vlad to be here
IT'S one of those incidental, little-known facts of football. The type of useless information that could only ever serve purpose if you happened to be involved in a pub quiz and the appropriate question came up.
Graham Rix played for Chelsea. In the Premiership. At a time when his close friend Glenn Hoddle was conducting the rejuvenation of the club and players like Ruud Gullit were being enticed to London to play out their twilight years.
It beggars belief when you consider the worldwide institution that Chelsea have become with Roman Abramovich's roubles, but at the age of 37 on Sunday, May 14 1995, Rix made his solitary appearance as player/coach as Chelsea effected a 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge with goals from Paul Furlong and Mark Stein.
The opponents? Arsenal, the club with whom Rix had become a left-wing legend throughout the 1970s and 80s. In another ironic twist, the visitors' consolation goal came courtesy of a certain John Hartson.
His day out in a Chelsea shirt perhaps lacks something in drama now when compared to other events in the life of Hearts' head coach. Rix had officially called time on a successful playing career upon leaving Dundee in 1993, but in May 1994 he came out of retirement and signed a professional playing contract with Chelsea whilst also carrying the title of youth-team coach.
His appearance on the final day of the 1994-95 season helped Chelsea secure 11th place in the Premiership ahead of Arsenal with their victory, and Rix remained registered as a player with the club until June 1998.
But, of course, his primary function at Stamford Bridge was in a coaching capacity, and it is that which he fondly remembers. "Glenn started the revolution," insists Rix. "But he couldn't see it through because he left to be England manager. Ruud Gullit got the job and promoted me to first-team coach, which was another big step for me but I felt I was ready. A couple of years after that Rudi left and Luca [Vialli] came in.
"It was a great time at Chelsea and we had phenomenal success. Luca then unbelievably got the sack and no-one at the club could believe it because we'd won something like six trophies in three years. Claudio Ranieri came in and obviously he had his own people so Chelsea eventually said to me, 'we've loved having you here but see you later, you're not needed any more', and I was out of work for four months."
So began arguably the most harrowing years of Rix's working life, highlighted only by brief and less-than-successful periods in charge of Portsmouth and Oxford United. He was forced to rely on part-time scouting work, which was put his way by Watford and then again through his connection with Hoddle when he researched players for Wolves. "It kept my eye in, but it wasn't what I wanted to do."
His overwhelming desire was to manage. Somewhere, anywhere. He applied and was interviewed for the vacant post at Crawley Town, a club languishing in England's Nationwide Conference. The reasons behind a football luminary like Rix resorting to such desperate measures need more media exposure the same way Chantelle and Preston do. Let's just say Rix now had baggage.
He had managed Portsmouth and Oxford after being released from prison, receiving predominantly positive receptions at both clubs. The past was the past, and few had the wish to regurgitate it. Granted, they weren't lining the streets to bid him farewell by the time he left, but that was purely for footballing reasons on both occasions. The majority of the English public appeared willing to accept that Rix had been made to pay for what he'd done. Then he walked into Tynecastle.
"I've got to say I couldn't believe the uproar. Really couldn't believe it," he said. "I'd worked at Portsmouth and Oxford and never had anything like that, and it shocked me. That press conference on my first day here was a massive thing for me to do. I've done what I've done but I'm moving on with my life, and that has been my philosophy since that incident happened.
"I made a mistake, I've paid for it, now I have to get on with the rest of my life. It was difficult for Linda [his second wife] and Shannon [daughter] when I got to Hearts because, although I was up here, there was intrusion in their lives down in Southampton. I consider our family home as my little sanctuary away from it all, and all of a sudden people were camped outside our house trying to take photographs.
"It wasn't a nice situation, but we're a strong unit and we came through it. All through that time when I wasn't working and had to rely on bits of scouting work for Watford or Wolves or whoever, I never doubted myself.
"I always thought that if I got a chance somewhere and I was given time, I had it in me. So to come to Hearts and work with these guys is fantastic. It took me two days to realise what a great bunch of players and staff there are at this club."
Rix informs us that his CV first dropped on the doormat of Tynecastle's main entrance almost a year ago, when he applied to succeed John Robertson as manager. Having become accustomed to receiving unfavourable responses from clubs he retained little hope of hearing from anyone in Edinburgh.
Five months later, the last person he expected to hear on the end of the phone was Roman Romanov, who had to spend some time convincing Rix that he was who he said he was. The dubiety cleared up, Rix headed to London to shake hands with Romanov Snr and become the new head coach of Hearts just two weeks after George Burley's sacking.
"It was a no-brainer, really," he says. "As soon as I realised I was in with a chance I was there. I needed to work for my own head, and for my family because I was driving them mad.
"It's a short-term contract and I was never going to bring my family up here on a six-month deal, so that has been a difficult aspect of it. But I fly home most weekends and my missus comes up and sees me. It's a struggle but we'll get through it.
"My family are over the moon. They talk about it as me having a proper job at a proper football club, and there is no doubting that is the case here."
Supporters' voices are indicating that the jury is still out on Rix's potential for success with Hearts, but what cannot be denied is the rapport struck between head coach and players on the training fields of Riccarton. It is within such a hands-on environment that Rix has flourished in previous jobs.
Several Hearts players have already gone public to declare their wish for him to be given a contract extension by majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov, the present one due for expiry in May.
In that respect, Rix seems to have all the right people pulling for him. One man in particular has had a vital role to play since Romanov's relationship with his head coach froze last month, when the Lithuanian opted to undermine Rix and pick the Hearts side himself for a SPL match at Dundee United.
"Jim Duffy is here as a buffer and I couldn't believe it when they made him director of football," said the Englishman. "It's fantastic for me. We're good mates so we support each other in our jobs, but Mr Romanov is the owner of this club, so if he tells the secretary to go and line the pitch, she's got to go and line the pitch. The contact I've had with Mr Romanov has been diluted since Duff came in. He takes certain pressures away from me."
A carefully calculated statement if ever there was one, and few could blame Rix for taking time to choose his words on Hearts' majority shareholder. He does, after all, covet a contract extension himself.
"I remember when I took the job, I spoke to the guys as a group on the Monday evening around six o'clock at Riccarton. I just said, 'I'm your new gaffer, I want you to treat me with respect and be honest because that's how I will be with you. Enjoy your football'.
"Then, I went and had dinner with Steven Pressley. I pulled him aside because I knew he was an influential player, and we just spoke for four hours about football, Hearts and all aspects of the game. I thought then, 'if they're all like him, I'm going to be okay here'. That's proved to be the case."
So much so that five of Rix's senior players, Pressley, Paul Hartley, Rudi Skacel, Neil McCann and Takis Fyssas, confronted their principle employer on the issue of team selection in the aftermath of the fiasco in Dundee. Their backing brought a rueful but private smile from their coach.
As he retreats to his Edinburgh flat of an evening, Rix ensures his sleep is as peaceful as possible by refusing to indulge in panic over the prospect of a return to unemployment this summer. Why should he? His name, and that of Hearts, is big news again, and ripples from his time in Scotland have been keenly felt south of the Border.
"I just want to work," he continues. "The diversity of the questions you've asked me in this interview shows that, in the short time I've been here, I've had a lot to contend with. And I think I've dealt with it.
"I've worked hard here and I don't want to throw that away. I want it to help me stay here. I could've thrown the towel in at various times, but I've dealt with all the anxiety and stress and I don't want that determination to have been wasted. I've had battles before in my life and come through them.
"I want to keep working, be it down south or in Scotland. Football is my life and I need it every day."
Taken from the Scotsman
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