Joel Sked charts the scarcely-believeable reign of the mafia-obssessed megalomaniac.
"Mafia are dragging kids into the crime, in order to blackmail and profit on them. It is not possible to separate these people from paedophiles . . . Each year we are forced to fight these maniacs harder and harder.”
A statement from the Italian State Police? Or the latest statement from Heart of Midlothian owner Vladimir Romanov?
As we settle down ready to journey back to 2004 to discover how we got here there is breaking news emanating from Gorgie, Edinburgh. Heart of Midlothian have sacked their assistant manager Billy Brown. Then manager Jim Jefferies. Only Jim Jefferies has been offered a director of football role. Then there is news about a Portuguese management team. The word has spread like wildfire, with Twitter as the gasoline. By the end of the night it is all but confirmed that the club are set to appoint Portuguese manager Paulo Sérgio as their eighth permanent manager in less than seven years. The following morning the news is confirmed with Jefferies rejecting the chance to become director of football. From mafia to managers. Welcome to Tynecastle.
“The federation and the trust believe that the proposed move to Murrayfield will signal the death of the club.”
Those were the words from the ‘Save Our Hearts’ campaign in 2004 as they fought to keep Hearts at their iconic Tynecastle stadium in the face of an adversary named Chris Robinson. Tynecastle was on the verge of non-existence, with CALA flats primed for the space and a move to the vast 67,500 seater Murrayfield – home of Scottish rugby – planned.
It was the culmination of what had been a long saga of protests and contempt towards chief executive Robinson over his running of the club. Despite vehement protests during and after games and at his house Robinson was adamant that a move across the Western Approach Road was vital for the future of the club, which had let debts of around £20m run up over years of mismanagement.
New chairman George Foulkes was given until the end of January 2005 to explore different options, which included a Russian-born Lithuanian businessman by the name of Vladimir Romanov. Romanov had showed interest early in 2004 but it was only when he met with Foulkes that his interest became firm. Come October 2004 the Russian had secured a 29.9% shareholding in Hearts. And on January 10th 2005 Romanov brought about a momentous day in Heart of Midlothian history and one that every fan had been looking forward to. At his insistence, the deal to sell Tynecastle to CALA was withdrawn. This mystery Eastern European (an ex-Soviet submariner who had built up his fortune after the fall of Communism) instantly wrote himself into Heart of Midlothian folklore.
It spelt the beginning of the Romanov Revolution. The beginning of a new era. The beginning of something very different.
Club legend John Robertson was the manager at the time but would not oversee the changes that swept through Tynecastle in the summer of 2005. Robertson lasted long enough however to witness the influence of the new majority shareholder. Romanov, also a shareholder in Lithuanian team FBK Kaunas and Belarusian outfit MTZ-Ripo, sent over 20 players from Eastern Europe to take place in a trial match; Robertson able to cherry-pick any he felt would add to his squad.
The summer of 2005 was an exciting time for all Hearts fans. Some of football’s most famous names were linked to the vacant post including Lothar Matthäus, Gerard Houllier and Bobby Robson. All the while Romanov was proclaiming of a masterplan to overcome the Old Firm and deliver Champions League football to Edinburgh, leading to the infamous yet unproven Champions of Europe within 10 years statement. Or was it five years? Anyway, fabricated or not, no one was foolish enough to believe that Heart of Midlothian would be lifting the Champions League trophy any time soon. But there was encouragement bordering on overwhelming excitement at the thought of Romanov ushering in a new era, where a force from Scotland’s capital would gatecrash the duopoly Celtic and Rangers had enjoyed uninterrupted since the 1980’s.
Ex-Ipswich boss George Burley would be followed through the door by a swathe of new signings to join an already solid Scottish backbone. Julien Brellier, Michael Pospisil, Roman Bednar, Rudi Skacel and impressively Edgaras Jankuaskas; later joined by European Championship winner Takis Fyssas as well as Ibrahim Tall and Samuel Camazzola. However they would provoke the first tear in the relationship between Romanov and Burley; the manager admitting it was the owner and not him bringing in the three players, along with Jankauskas.
But as the team embarked on a 10-game unbeaten run, storming to the top of the SPL, fans were enjoying basking in the glory of seeing a winning team outplay and often obliterate opponents.
Until a weekend in October.
On October 21st, Romanov upped his stake in Hearts to 55.5%, in a move that further strengthened the Russian’s commitment and, more pertinently, power base at the club.
On October 22nd, George Burley was sacked as manager of Heart of Midlothian despite the aforementioned run. The team would go on to beat Dunfermline that day under a caretaker manager but the fans, players and Scottish football were collectively in shock. It brought to the surface rumblings behind the scenes and highlighted that this new era was not going to be smooth. It was going to be tempestuous. It was going to be a rollercoaster.
“It has been mutually agreed that because of irreconcilable differences George Burley will not continue at the club with immediate effect” read the statement issued by the club. The reason(s) for the sacking still remain unclear. One thing for certain was Heart of Midlothian no longer had George Burley as their manager.
The disbelief was only intensified when Graham Rix was chosen as the most suitable candidate to take over the role; provoking one angry fan, in front of television cameras to empty a bag of ‘Russian hats’ bought from the clubs superstore and kick them around outside Tynecastle. Very few saw this appointment developing into anything other than failure. And that is exactly what happened.
However, before all that came a Christmas and New Year message from the owner. Accompanied by a picture of the man himself sitting on a beach, jeans rolled up to his knees and windswept hair. It would bewilder fans and the press alike but it was a prelude of what was to come.
On the pitch, Hearts’ title hopes would all but be extinguished on New Year’s Day as Celtic collected a controversial three points at Tynecastle. It was felt the squad lacked relative depth and by the end of the transfer window eleven new faces had been brought in, including record singing, Bosnian Mirsad Beslija for £850,000.
Back to Rix. Tuesday, February 7th; Dundee United away. The beginning of the end.
The fans knew their owner was hands-on, but travelling north to Dundee they would hear just how hands-on. Rix confided in senior players, telling them he was not picking the team. Orders from above were given to make certain changes. The game gave birth to the now-infamous line about the ‘fax machine’ at Tynecastle delivering the starting line-up to the manager the day of the game from Lithuania.
Rix would survive until the middle of March. Ex-Kaunas manager Valdas Ivanauskas was given the unenviable job of lifting a team tasked with splitting the Old firm, qualifying for the Champions League qualifiers and winning the Scottish Cup. The team, a combination of Scottish steel and foreign flair, did just that; throwing in a 4-0 defeat of city rivals Hibernian in the Scottish Cup semi-final for good measure.
One owner, three managers, nineteen new players, controversy, bewilderment, excitement but – in the end – success. It was arguably the club’s greatest campaign in decades. Champions League football beckoned. But that season would be the apex under Romanov.
Ivanauskas was installed as permanent head coach as the club set to build on their achievements. Only they didn’t. Mauricio Pinilla and Christos Karipidis were joined by a trio of Lithuanians, as the club succumbed to AEK Athens in the Champions League Third Qualifying Round and then Sparta Prague in the UEFA Cup. Both home legs were played at Murrayfield and attracted a combined crowd of 59,974 underlining the club’s potential even as the lure of European success slipped away.
The season would quickly unravel amidst a backdrop of off-field issues. Ivanauskas was given a sabbatical (due to health reasons) and replaced, temporarily, by one of Soviet football’s most famous coaches, Eduard Malofeev. His eight-game spell produced another infamous Heart of Midlothian moment; the ‘Riccarton Three’.
Steven Pressley, Paul Hartley and Craig Gordon sat in front of the media at Hearts’ Riccarton training ground to issue a statement criticising Romanov’s running of the club, citing ‘significant unrest’. It was the beginning of the end for the club captain, the midfield maestro and arguably the best goalkeeper to pull on a Hearts jersey. All would leave the club within a year, netting £10m in transfer fees.
Even with this income the club’s debt extended beyond £30m, carried by Ukio Bankas Investment Group (a Lithuanian company which Romanov has a significant interest in). No one could quite determine what this meant for Hearts other than financially it could not go on. One rumour suggested a squad player was accidentally given a bumper wage.
But as the club continued to be mocked in the media Romanov fought back with a triumvirate of outbursts. First up was a statement which portrayed the press as monkeys. Not only was the statement accompanied by a monkey at a computer with pen in hand wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with The Sun logo but bananas and peanuts were put out for the press when reporting on matches.
Then came a response to a cartoon of Romanov that appeared in The Sun later that month.
“The Queen – “Oh please Mr Romanov let me pick the team this week!””
“Vladimir Romanov – “Rather you Ma’m, than any monkey journalist.””
And, finally: "I beg you Mowgli, take the monkeys back to the Safari Park." I beg you Mr Romanov, please stop.
He did, but only replace Ivanauskas with the caretaker double team of Anatoly Korobochka and Steven Frail. A 5th-placde finish was topped off with the supporters’ worst nightmare; no manager in place. Carry on Korobochka and Frail.
The summer of 2007 saw Romanov engaging in an impromptu boxing match with striker Roman Bednar? A ‘playful’ sparring duel saw Romanov give it all his might to hit the Czech striker who in turn didn’t know what to do. Like the awkwardness of being attacked by a young child. Just stand and take it. Bednar departed before the transfer window closed.
The worst season since the inception of the SPL followed as the Edinburgh side finished in 8th. A fanbase that had long since descended into apathy was finally given what they wanted – a manager who chose his own team. Csaba Laszlo arrived and set about taking Hearts back to the upper echelons of the SPL. But it would have done be done without the mercurial talent of Pinilla.
After a series of loan spells and rehabilitation for depression, Romanov spent considerably on the striker to help him overcome problems that had afflicted his career. He was even a guest at the Romanov household where the owner (who won Lithuania’s version of Strictly Come Dancing) gave the striker dance lessons. However the club reneged on their contract extension, instead offering him only a proportion of the deal. The striker departed. Even after the dance tutelage.
Finally, Romanov and his eye for controversy began to descend into the shadows as Heart of Midlothian resdiscovered a degree of stability. The Russian would infrequently raise his head above the parapet to remind everyone what he thought of the ‘mafia’ in charge of the Scottish game and to also replace Laszlo with club legend Jim Jefferies.
That was until this pre-season. An unfortunate set of events would see Romanov back in the public eye and once again under the microscope of the media. Defender Craig Thomson was found guilty of lewd behaviour to young girls and placed on the sex offenders register. It was fully expected and demanded that he be released. However the club stood by him and issued that statement – sparking a furore in the media from fans, charities, the public and sponsors.
It was the perfect summation of Romanov’s time at Hearts. Everyone expects him to do one thing. He goes against the grain and does the opposite. However, pressure was exerted from fans and sponsors giving the club little option but to re-think their stance, announcing that the player would not play for the club again. Just as the issue seemed resolved, Thomson pitched up at Romanov-owned Kaunas – where he will play out the rest of the season.
Earlier this week, Jim Jefferies was removed from his post on the back of one win in fifteen games and replaced by Paulo Sérgio, as the club looked to move in a different direction. Three games into the season, and three days before a crucial Europa League qualifier.
Yet there are no mass protests that characterised Chris Robinson’s time at the club. Vladimir Romanov still has his supporters even when outsiders have expected a mutiny for the last six years. It’s not that the fans don’t care. They do. Deeply.
It’s because deep down, even those who are so fervent in their dislike towards the owner know when the club were looking for a saviour, there was only one person that appeared. The table-topping manager sacked, a club legend sacked, popular players forced out, signings forced on managers, cryptic messages. But still fans turn up in their thousands to support Heart of Midlothian. Because of Vladimir Romanov.
Follow Joel on Twitter @sked21.