Mid loathing

The Tynecastle soap opera becomes more incredible by the minute, as the increasingly erratic Vladimir Romanov takes a chairman’s megalomania into uncharted territory. Neil Forsyth reports

It’s difficult to convey accurately the sheer absurdity of the current state of affairs at Hearts. Journalists have revelled in comparisons with the festive pantomime season, while it’s hard not to read about how late Turkmenistan dictator Saparmurat Niyazov ran the country without your mind wandering down Gorgie Road.

In November, an MSP called for the Scottish Executive to investigate the club (in, it should be noted, the cynical, ignorant way of the opportunistic politician), while a more significant group described Hearts as a “circus freak show” in the week before Christmas. The fact that this outraged collective was the Hearts Supporters’ Trust shows how far things have fallen since the initially celebrated arrival of the Lithuanian banker Vladimir Romanov in January 2005.

At first, the former Soviet submarine commander could do no wrong. He scrapped the hugely unpopular planned sale of Tynecastle, then appointed George Burley as manager and had a clear hand in bringing in several very talented European players. Of course, his talk of establishing Hearts as one of the top teams in Europe was preposterous, but that didn’t mean that his bravado was unwelcome. Here was a Scottish chairman from outside the Old Firm that was happy to target winning the league and beyond, with not a moment’s consideration of the Glasgow pair’s natural dominance, and that simple act was a revelation.

The rewards were quick to come, as was the intrigue. Burley was infamously sacked, despite Hearts being top of the league, as were the chief executive and chairman, with Romanov’s son taking a boardroom role. New manager Graham Rix saw the league challenge fade and eventually let slip that he was not, in fact, picking the team.

This wasn’t a new suggestion. Though Burley signed a confidentiality agreement, rumours circulated of Romanov handing out marks to players after the game and taking a keen interest in selection. But this open admission of interference was too much for captain Steven Pressley, who led a players’ delegation to speak to the chairman.

Rix was sacked (on the face of it, for results) and Valdas Ivanauskas, a Lithuanian, arrived to regain second spot, with entry into the Champions League qualifiers, and win the Scottish Cup. Suddenly the revolution was back on track and, as tens of thousands saw the club parade through Gorgie in May, factors such as the high number of average Lithuanian players waving from the open-top bus seemed irrelevant.

This season, however, the wheels have truly come off. Faltering form, including an early exit from Europe, provoked Romanov into abandoning any pretence at detachment from team affairs. In October, following a home defeat by Kilmarnock, he informed the players they would all be sold if Dunfermline were not beaten the next weekend. This was the catalyst for a remarkable day at the Riccarton training ground, as journalists arrived for the pre-match press conference to be met by the stony faces of Pressley, Paul Hartley and Craig Gordon.

Their statement, read by Pressley in a doom-laden monologue, spoke of “significant unrest” in the dressing room, before they scarpered and left chaos in their wake. Perhaps sensing what was to come, Ivanauskas had taken a medical leave of absence and was replaced by the Russian Eduard ­Malofeev, who handily speaks no English.

Malofeev’s first action was to drop Pressley from the team and Hartley to the bench. Results, inevitably, worsened and Pressley paid the price for standing up to Romanov with a “mutual” agreement to leave in early December. The ship has been slightly steadied by the return of Ivanauskas, but he has not been helped by the remaining disharmony over the “Riccarton Three”. Hartley and Gordon have both been questioned by the club’s shady administrators, the outcome of which is still unclear. Romanov, meanwhile, has taken a vow of silence in revenge for an adjudged lack of media respect.

This stalemate was what instigated the statement of the supporters’ trust. Among fans generally, doubters now outnumber the loyalists. With the club in fifth and team selection still apparently not conducted purely on such trifling matters as player ability, there is no on-field success to gloss over the off-field chaos.

Amid the hullabaloo, perhaps the most significant recent quote comes from goalkeeper Gordon (who, bizarrely, has also just been appointed club captain) when asked what he believes will be the outcome of his and Hartley’s hearings. “At this club at the moment you deal with every single day as it comes,” he replied. “Anything beyond that, you are likely to be wrong.”

From WSC 24o February 2007. What was happening this month