Andrius Velicka wheeled away in the late Edinburgh sunshine. A beaming smile and arms, momentarily, outstretched in celebration. Delight was then usurped by surprise, shock even, as his hands moved to the top of his head.

The Lithuanian trialist had opened the scoring for Heart of Midlothian in front of nearly 19,000 fans at Murrayfield against Spanish side Osasuna, the final pre-season encounter ahead of a Champions League qualifier with Bosnian outfit Siroki Brijeg. And he had done it in stunning fashion. Bringing down a clearance with his left foot before looping a brilliant effort over Ricardo, once of Manchester United, with his right foot. He had come on at left wing before spearheading a 3-4-3 system as Valdas Ivanauskas made a swathe of changes in the second half. 

“Very good memories,” Velicka told Hearts Standard during a holiday in his native Lithuania. “You are coming from Lithuania and it is not a football country. The stadium is 60,000. You are scoring a goal for Hearts, it is amazing.”

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The celebration and reaction were understandable. “I had a couple of trials,” Velicka remembered. “In 2005/06 I was on a trial. I spent New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh but after I went home to Kaunas.”

This was another opportunity to make a case for a move to Tynecastle Park, joining fellow Lithuanians Edgaras Jankauskas, Devidias Cesnauskis, Saulius Mikoliunas and Nerijus Barasa. For any Hearts fan picking up a programme ahead of the friendly, however, there was no reference to Vekicka, or Tomas Kancelskis, Marius Zaliukas and Kestutis Ivaskevicius, the three other Lithuanian trialists that night. The quartet had not featured in any of the four friendly fixtures which had preceded the match at Murrayfield.

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Tiago Costa, Giorgi Popkhadze and Ales Urbanek had as Hearts played against LASK Linz, Spartak Trnava, FC Cluj and Preston North End in a pre-season that was far from normal. The club had spent time onboard the 381ft luxury yacht called The Turama, which featured 40 rooms including a cinema, swimming pool, gym and a sauna. Naturally, there was also a helipad and it was linked to the mainland by speed boat. They would sail off the coast of Montecarlo and Cannes, Bastia and St Tropez. Preparation had “gone exceptionally well” and the team were “in a very positive state of mind”, according to club captain Steven Pressley in his programme notes for the Osasuna encounter.

Yet, having finished league runners-up and Scottish Cup winners in the season previous, Hearts had yet to add to Ivanauskas’ squad despite being a week away from the aforementioned Champions League qualifier, the club’s first in Europe’s premier competition since a clash with Benfica in 1960, and a promise of World Cup stars by owner Vladimir Romanov. 

“I will make signings before the deadline. Will they be the two World Cup stars? Why only two? Why not all of them? But seriously, we are negotiating it,” Romanov would say, in a manner which appeared an inspiration for Frank Lampard's infamous joke-then-laugh-but-then-no-seriously approach to tackling questions from the media.

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Bednar, Pospisil, Pinilla, Jankauskas... Velicka

The sudden presence of Velicka, Zaliukas, Ivaskevicius and Kancelskis was, on the face of it, not a surprise due to Romanov’s presence and influence. It was Velicka, however, who made an instant impact. Still, he wasn’t signed until later in the window. While Zaliukas would join eventual arrivals arrivals Mauricio Pinilla, Tiago Costa and Christos Karipidis, Velicka would return to Lithuania to play and score in UEFA Cup qualification for Kaunas before his Hearts move after the Champions League qualifying defeat to AEK Athens when Jamie Mole started up front in the Greek capital. 

The attacking riches at Ivanauskas’ disposal that season were laughable in hindsight. Velicka joined Roman Bednar, Michael Pospisil, Pinilla and Jankauskas. 

“I always say the same, it is hard to come from the Lithuanian league to the Scottish league,” he said. “You never think, ‘I’ll be a good player or top-class player in Scotland’. At first I thought it would be good to come from the bench but step by step you can see you can play football. 

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“It’s always good in a club when you have more than one player in a position. When you come from the Lithuanian league and see Bednar, Pinilla, Jankauskas… Jankauskas was a player who won a Champions League with FC Porto! You need to believe in yourself, work hard, do your best and try to get your chance. I got my chance and I think I did good!”

Good is perhaps an understatement. Twenty-six goals in 56 competitive appearances. It is a strike rate which has been bettered by only three strikers of note at Tynecastle Park since the turn of the century: Lee Miller, Genero Zeefuik and Lawrence Shankland. Impressively, 11 of those goals arrived in games against Aberdeen, Celtic, Hibs and Rangers. 

Listening to Velicka reminisce, it is clear he saw a great opportunity and was desperate to take it with both hands. Head down and work hard. When asked about his success he admitted he was never a ‘technical player’ but noting the need for ‘more power, runs into the channels’ in Scotland. It allowed him to adapt quickly to the Scottish game, while he thrived in games against the country’s bigger sides where there was more space.

Derby importance

His arrival coincided with a time when suspicion over Lithuanian players and their presence in the first team was on the rise. He is one of 15 players from Lithuania who have made a competitive appearance for Hearts, with another two appearing in friendly matches - Vytautas Luksa and Arturas Rimkevicius. Within the dressing room, Velicka never encountered any animosity, while on the pitch a double against Hibs at Easter Road in a 2-2 draw early on in his career certainly helped, aided by some suspect goalkeeping from Tynecastle Park cult hero Zibi Malkowski.

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“Before the game I didn’t understand,” he said of the game’s importance. “Of course [in Lithuania] we had derbies but not like that. I didn’t realise the Edinburgh derby was such a big game. For me it was a game, a simple championship game. I always wanted to win, it doesn’t matter who it was against. But after the game I understood what I did. I remember after the second goal I got booked for showing my Hearts badge. It was very good, I loved to play in Scotland.

“Maybe these goals helped me to settle because you read little bits, rumours that some Scottish players don’t like us because there are lot of Lithuanians, maybe saying, ‘you are not good enough, you are just coming here because of Romanov’, but in my opinion Mikoliunas, Zaliukas, me - we showed we can play football, good football, and it was okay. I think it was like in every football club in every football country - if you play good, fans are nice to you. You need to win, you need to score. You are playing for the fans, not for somebody else.”

Velicka relished the new environment, the new culture and new footballing experience. He can still remember the surprise at hearing music played before matches as well as the influence of two leading figures during his first few months in Gorgie.

“For me it was a new thing,” he said. “When I came back to Lithuania, I remember saying to the coach, ‘why are we not listening to music?’. He said, ‘ah, we need to be concentrated’. We can concentrate with music! Now everybody in Lithuania is listening to the music before the game. 

“Paul Hartley, Steven Pressley, you could see straight away they are the bosses of the dressing room. I never had a problem with them. You see these people who are the bosses, you need them in every dressing room, the role models. If you have some problems you can speak to them and it was good, they helped.”

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That Celtic double

Of course, conversation was bound to turn to that night at Celtic Park. October 31, 2007. A League Cup quarter-final against the Scottish champions. Velicka wouldn't start the game having missed the previous two. In fact, he wouldn’t see any action until the 74th minute. Within three minutes he had put Hearts in front with his first touch after sweeping in Andy Driver’s cutback much to the annoyance of the sparse and agitated home crowd, who felt the winger had run the ball out of play.

Then came a goal which was more spectacular than the one netted against Osasuna. Hearts sprang forward after more loose play from Evander Sno. Audrius Ksanavicius and Michael Stewart exchanged passes, the former finding Velicka 30 yards from goal. Confronted by Stephen McManus, he used his power to open up space onto his right - a small acceleration, then he let fly with a thunderous effort which screamed into the top corner, much to the delight of this writer who was there that evening. One fan was sent straight through a Celtic Park seat, such was the ecstasy in the away end.

“What can I say? It was a very good night,” Velicka chuckled. “When I was at Hearts, playing against Celtic, Rangers was very nice because of the stadiums, the fans. It was amazing. When you come from the bench and score two goals against Artur Boruc. I think it was in the papers after this game that he signed a new contract with Celtic for £40k-a-week. I played my best football at Hearts.”

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Sent home by Vlad

Tongue in cheek, it was put to Velicka that he should have asked Romanov for a pay rise after. The answer which followed was unexpected, showing that even the Lithuanian players were not immune to Romanov’s capricious nature. Every Hearts fan will remember the 1-0 loss to Hibs at Tynecastle Park to begin the 2007/08 league campaign. Ricardas Beniusis’ debut. Brian Kerr scoring the only goal on a turgid Monday evening of football in EH11. It could, however, have been very different if Velicka played. If he was available.

He recalled: “After the first season I was top scorer, I asked for a little bit more money but he sent me home! First game of the new season I was at home watching. Derby game at Tynecastle Park against Hibs and Hearts lost. Some people said fans were saying to bring Velicka back. I don’t know if it was true because I was in Lithuania but after this derby game straight away somebody called me to say ‘go back to Hearts, we need you’. 

“You can’t say he was a bad person but sometimes if he was angry or in a bad mood you don’t know what he can say to you or do. On this phone call he was in a very bad mood. I was just asking for a little bit more money, ‘look, Vladimir, I’m top scorer, maybe I can get a bit more money’. It's a normal thing to do. But he said, ‘no, I think you are going back to Lithuania’. Next day I was on a flight back home. He was not as bad as some people think but he was a strange guy. He didn’t say you are going home, it was, ‘I think you go back to Lithuania’, and after a couple of hours somebody called me to say there are tickets booked for tomorrow to go back to Lithuania. I trained a couple of times with Kaunas and after training with Kaunas, one of the coaches came and asked what’s happening. The sporting director at the time said, ‘after this loss at Tynecastle, you go back’. I asked about money and he said, ‘hey, just go back. Don’t think about money.’”

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The 2007/08 season was one of the low points under Romanov but individually it was excellent for Velicka, who was the team’s talisman before being sold to Viking FK in Norway during the campaign. He wanted to finish the season and perhaps move to England with Burnley interested but he was very much aware of the situation at the club.

“Hearts needed the money and I needed to go,” he said. “You know with Romanov, if you don’t go you can sit on the bench for the rest of the season. So I just needed to go.”

But he would return. To Scottish football at least with spells at Rangers and Aberdeen either side of a period at Bristol City where he suffered an ACL injury. At Ibrox he had the enjoyment of having Ally McCoist as a first-team coach.

“He [McCoist] was a very nice person,” he remembers. “He was more like a friend than a coach for the players. I remember after a game against Falkirk, I scored. He was betting with Kenny McDowall how many goals I would score that season. Kenny said 20, Coisty said 25 or something. It was nice but after the second game against Hearts I was out of the team!”

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Velicka-Jankauskas double act

Despite that goal in his first start against Falkirk, he found himself down Walter Smith’s pecking order, behind the likes of Kenny Miller, Kris Boyd, Kyle Lafferty and Jean-Claude Darcheville. Velicka would go on to play in Azerbaijan before finishing his career in his native Lithuania. Coaching was not something in his plans, until he found himself going in that direction.

“It’s harder than playing football but I am enjoying it even though I always said I would never be a coach,” he said. “A couple of times young players just asked me to coach, private sessions for finishing and little by little, step by step people saw it and asked why I’m not coaching. Almost three years now coaching, I’ve got the UEFA A Licence. Step by step I’m progressing.”

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He now splits his time between head coach duties of Lithuania’s Under-17 and Under-16 sides and assistant coach at first-team level. The national team boss? None other than Edgaras Jankauskas. The former Hearts striker he looked up to.

“It didn’t matter who I played with or against, I just wanted to play,” he said. “But to play with Jankauskas it was exciting because I was young when he started to play. For me he was a role model. Everyone was watching to see how he played. To play with him was a pleasure. He was brilliant. He could play with both legs, he could pass a ball, he was tall. If [Jose] Mourinho signed him it says it all. It’s not easy to sign for FC Porto and win a UEFA Cup and Champions League. A top-class player, that’s it.”

They are now looking to take Lithuania forward in a country where basketball is king. And they can no longer call on the services of Mikoliunas, the country’s record caps holder with 101. Yet, he is still playing at club level with Zalgiris Vilnius.

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“To be honest, he’s not playing too much just now at his club,” he laughed. “He’s a professional, a really good guy and a good example for young players. I’m saying, ‘stop playing, leave the space for the young boys!’. He’s doing okay, always smiling. You know him from Hearts, he’s a very good person. But a little bit you know, his hair is getting grey!

“It’s hard for us because players are changing, we need to invite younger players. It’s the same, step by step we’re looking forward.”

As our conversation ended, attention turned back to Hearts. He revealed he was close to coming back for a match last season when former Rangers colleague Lee McCulloch was on the coaching staff. Still keen to return to Edinburgh for a trip with his family - including one of his daughters who spent time in Scotland during her dad’s playing career, developing a Scottish accent - he noted that “Hearts v Hibs would be nice”.

But it “should be at Tynecastle - not at that s*** stadium”.