Last September, former Hearts captain Marius Zaliukas showed up on the doorsteps of Murray Park looking for a break – a chance to latch onto a new club after being released by the financially strapped Jambos. Ally McCoist was more then welcoming to the idea of adding Zaliukas – especially after the failed courting of Boris Pandza & Christophe Berra.
Rangers offered Zaliukas a contract but the Lithuanian defender turned it down after being lured by better offers south of the border. He followed that up with a failed trial run with Queens Park Rangers but then moved on to a successful trial with Leeds United & eventually signed an 18-month contract with the club. That deal should have carried on through the entirety of this upcoming season, but the club’s new management decided that Zaliukas had a limited future with the club & the two sides mutually agreed to terminate the contract.
What went wrong?
First off, it was a rather poor season for the storied club. Leeds finished 15th in England’s Championship & only two other non-relegated clubs gave up more goals as they allowed 67 goals in 46 league matches. Upon joining Leeds in November on trial, Marius Zaliukas was a regular starter for two months, making 13 appearances. He signed his contract on December 31st, played the next three weeks but that stretch culminated with a fateful match against Sheffield Wednesday. After that flashpoint – he went two months without an appearance & there were only a total of three Zaliukas sightings in the final three months of the season. So what happened?
Rob Atkinson – who covers the club for Life, Leeds United, the Universe, & Everything – told Rangers Report that Zaliukas, “started off okay but then the club seemed to drag him down and he put in some memorably awful displays.”
Adam Jubb of Fear & Loathing in LS11 elaborated on Zaliukas’ plight with Leeds. “Marius Zaliukas’ short stay at Leeds United was one that perfectly fit the club’s recent experiences with loanee defenders:
- Defender fits in effortlessly and looks the part.
- Fans clamour for the move to be made permanent
- Contract secured, the defender goes from colossus to calamity in almost the blink of an eye.”
Jubb continued, “There’s no denying that Zaliukas had all the poise and ability we could have hoped for at Championship level. From his debut he looked a cut above all of those around; he was composed on the ball, tidy in the challenge and able to anticipate almost anything. His calming presence transformed our back five and the news of his permanent signing was universally applauded.”
“Then, it all started to fall apart. While Zaliukas had continued to impress as a tired Leeds’ form faltered going into the festive period, but then everything fell apart in the early weeks of the new year. Zaliukas was at first dragged down by the financial crisis at the club, but by the game at Hillsborough was the highest profile guilty party of all.”
Given the financial woes that Zaliukas saw while at Hearts, he had to have been dumbfounded to be experiencing it all over again at a new club. In an article for The Guardian, noted football journalist & author, Daniel Taylor wrote that Leeds are “the most irrational, eccentric, self-defeating, dysfunctional, implausible football club in the country. A club that seems hell-bent on turning incompetence into an art form. A club where every good idea feels like beginner’s luck and the next lamp-post is always around the corner.” Somewhere, a Rangers supporter just put a supportive arm around the shoulder of a Leeds fan, ordered him a pint, & began a session of venting & consoling.
So Zaliukas was in caught in another crossfire hurricane of ineptitude. But that doesn’t explain his disappearance from the lineup for Leeds. Oh yes, Adam Jubb had mentioned a certain match at Hillsborough…
Jubb details the embarrassing pinnacle of the season as Leeds went to play Sheffield Wednesday & left feeling as they had just dropped a bar of soap in a crowded prison shower.
“As manager Brian McDermott struggled to arrest the slump in form, a jaw dropping 3-4-3 formation inspired one of the most shameful Leeds showings in recent years (and there have been many) as the team slumped to a 2-0 FA Cup defeat at Rochdale that flattered us in the extreme. Abuse from the stands shook both McDermott & the players & that day was pinpointed as a defining moment for a season that would from that point, take a rapid upward turn…the following week, Leeds travelled to Sheffield.”
“With Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart added to the squad, McDermott elected to try and play wing backs and wingers – the supporters were incredulous when they saw the team news, Leeds were a shambles, Wednesday won 6-0.”
“Zaliukas himself was chief villain, twice pathetically at fault for the goals and prior to that, guilty of attempting a ludicrous back-heel inside his own penalty box.”
“Rumours have persisted ever since that he turned up on the day stinking of booze.”
To make matters worse, the match was on national television for the entire nation to see. The embarrassing performance by the club, & in particular Zaliukas, was summed up by Connor Thorpe as he handed out player ratings for The 72. Most of the Leeds team were assigned 3.5s or fours, with no player breaking the threshold that connotes average – the milquetoast rating of six. But Thorpe, withheld the worst evaluation that day for Zaliukas.
Thorpe gave the defender a damning rating of 2.0 for the day. He wrote, “Zaliukas made mistake after mistake. At fault for two of the home side’s goals, he showed poor positional play, and was bullied by Wednesday’s firepower. Crazy and casual back heel to set up Lavery for his second goal.”
In The Yorkshire Evening Post – Jonathan Ford wrote, “Marius Zaliukas played like he was drunk and was catastrophic.”
After that, Zaliukas became one of the scapegoats for the club & only made three more appearances for the rest of the season.
The writing was on the wall that his career with Leeds was over & then on July 1st they agreed to officially part ways.
The release was not a surprise to those who follow Leeds. Rob Atkinson told Rangers Report, “In the end I think the fans were glad to get rid of Zaliukas – but to be fair, I bet the boy is glad to be away. It’s a toxic place right now, Leeds.”
Adam Jubb added, “That he was released was no surprise, but to some, it was maybe a shame. New coaches, according to the cliches, means a fresh start for all players – but not Marius, and in a Leeds backline, desperately short of ability and composure, an on song Zaliukas would be the first name on the team sheet.”
“Bridges had obviously been burned.”
So it appears that Zaliukas became the fall guy after a demoralizing loss, during a bleak period in the club’s history, but sensibility would suggest that – from a pure footballing sense – Zaliukas could be of a real value as Leeds gears up for the new season. However, it also appears that neither player, nor club, were ready to fight to salvage a potentially toxic relationship.
So what now?
It is appearing more & more likely that Rangers would like to sign Zaliukas. Based on the 45 minutes he put in against Brora Rangers this past Sunday, it appears that Zaliukas could bring real composure to the backline that desperately needs it with Lee McCulloch another year older & Bilel Mohsni’s propensity towards slack play being particularly worrisome as the club returns to playing full-time players again. Darren McGregor & Zaliukas teamed up to bring a sense of calm & confidence on Sunday after a shaky first half from McCulloch & Luca Gasparotto.
“So would Zaliukas be a sound addition? If the manager can find what makes him tick and keeps him doing so, then he should be a class apart from almost every player in the Scottish Championship, ” proclaimed Adam Jubb.
“At his best, he was certainly amongst the very best in the English second tier. This ability undoubtedly remains, whether a move to Rangers would be a success might just be down as much those who coach him as the man himself.”
So it all comes back, as it usually does, to the manager.
Ally McCoist has clearly proven that he is loyal to his veteran players, sometimes to a fault, but if Zaliukas happened to have another “Sheffield Wednesday match” in him – McCoist would certainly handle it differently then it was dealt with at Leeds.
There is no way that McCoist would allow a calamitous outing like that to ostracize a player so much that he disappears from the lineup for good (Insert Richard Foster or Dean Shiels joke at your own discretion). Additionally, the criticism that McCoist struggles as a coach in developing players capabilities, would be null & void for a player like Zaliukas – who has made over 200 first team appearances in the SPL & in England since 2006.
- So the question now becomes – would you like to see Rangers sign Marius Zaliukas?