Romanov empire: madness in the court of king of Hearts

Former submariner, who won Lithuania's 'Strictly Come Dancing' and changes managers for fun, welcomes Spurs. Robin Scott-Elliot reports
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They have rarely known the sublime down Gorgie Road – the championship win of 1960 perhaps, or maybe the Scottish Cup triumph in 1998 – but the ridiculous has been Heart of Midlothian's constant companion for the last six years. Under the extraordinary stewardship of Vladimir Romanov, sometime submariner, backstreet record dealer turned multimillionaire and once upon a time the best dancer in Lithuania, the club that lays claim to being Scotland's best and biggest outside the Old Firm has installed a managerial hot seat that has already scalded 11 occupants.

Paulo Sergio is the 12th, if you include caretakers. He was serenaded by the Tynecastle support midway through his first game, a Europa League tie with Paksi SE of Hungary, with cries of, "You're getting sacked in the morning." Tonight he sends his side out for a rather sterner European challenge against Tottenham. It is the Portuguese's first job outside his own country. His previous one ended with his dismissal by Sporting Lisbon, so at least he will have relevant experience to call on when his time in Edinburgh comes to an end. Because if anything has become certain at Hearts, it is that the manager will be sacked.

The dismissal of George Burley, with Hearts top of the Scottish Premier League after a flying start to the season, hours before a game with Dunfermline in October 2005, appeared to give Romanov a taste for it. He has become a serial sacker and was at it again on the first day of this month, dismissing Jim Jefferies, his most popular appointment, two games into the league season and with a third-placed finish behind him from the previous campaign. Jefferies himself had been installed two hours after the previous incumbent, Csaba Laszlo, was ushered out of the Scottish capital's busiest revolving door. "You do wonder," remarked George Foulkes, the Labour peer who resigned as the club's chairman following Burley's sacking, "what he's looking for in a manager."

It is not though a straightforward picture. Romanov in effect saved the club when he took it over in 2005 and during his tenure they became the only side to break the Old Firm's grip on the top two places in the 13-year history of the SPL. They have also finished third twice and won the Scottish Cup in 2006. He has invested more than £60m in the club, a level far and above anything outside the Old Firm, and Hearts have also targeted youth development – alongside regular Lithuanian imports.

Romanov made his money in the free-for-all that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, founding Lithuania's first private bank and also making lucrative investments in textiles and food processing. Unlike Roman Abramovich, his heart seems to remain very much in his homeland – in 2007 he won Lithuania's Dancing with the Stars after a final watched by one million people, a third of the country's population. There were dark mutterings of vote rigging.

Whether part of his heart still lies in Midlothian is less clear. When he took over there were claims he was no more than an asset-stripper and within a couple of years there was speculation that he wanted out. But, with his son Roman as chairman, he remains a fixture in Scottish football and the team remain the ones most likely to challenge the Old Firm.

It's Festival time in Edinburgh – Tottenham have had to stay outside the city because all suitable hotels are booked up – but the Scottish saga of the Romanovs beats anything on show back up the Gorgie Road.