Heart of Midlothian FC: Broken Hearts

It all sounds like an implausible film script: Lithuanian businessman saves venerable Scottish football club from ruin, takes it to the top of the league, then sacks manager, chief executive and club captain and picks the team himself. Brian Viner unravels the bizarre saga of Heart of Midlothian FC
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The Independent Online

The unremarkable Edinburgh neighbourhood of Gorgie is an improbable backdrop to an almost operatic tale of deceit, betrayal, passion, illicit sex and, indeed, Verdi's Rigoletto. But then nothing is probable about the recent history of Heart of Midlothian FC. Also woven into this stirring tale are Soviet-era nuclear submarines, Robbie Williams, Edinburgh's Deputy Lord Provost, the KGB, a Labour peer, the Rolling Stones, a Lithuanian bank, and even some football. Elvis looms large as well, albeit not the Elvis, but the former captain of Hearts, Steven "Elvis" Pressley, who was shown the door shortly before Christmas for finally daring to tell the media what they already knew, that behind the scenes at his beloved club there was "significant unrest". By order of the club's Lithuanian owner, Vladimir Romanov, and to the horror of the fans, Elvis has now left the building. The club's other best players, among them the coveted Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon, are expected to follow.

The building Elvis left is Tynecastle, a compact, hugely atmospheric, Victorian football stadium where Hearts - an Edinburgh institution like few others, with solid blue-collar support but also a devoted following among the city's genteel middle-class of lawyers, clergymen and university professors - have played football since 1886. Yet Hearts would have quit Tynecastle at the beginning of the 2004-05 season to play their home games at nearby Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rugby union, had a desperately unpopular scheme hatched by the then-chief executive, Chris Robinson, been implemented. It almost was. A deal was agreed with a property company, CALA Homes, to knock down Tynecastle and redevelop the site. The former Hearts chairman, Leslie Deans, warned that the sale would amount to the venerable club's "death knell", and the fans were predictably aghast. Petitions were signed. Effigies were burnt. Death threats were sent. Those genteel Edinburgh clergymen can be an intemperate lot.

The spiritual home of the energetic "Save Our Hearts" campaign to save Tynecastle was a shabbily ornate Victorian pub in the old stadium's shadow, the Tynecastle Arms. There, one gloomy Tuesday afternoon last month, two middle-aged, lifelong Hearts fans, Kev and Pete, propped up the bar lamenting Pressley's departure. "It's terrible," said Kev. "It's pish," said Pete, who admitted to being slightly the worse for wear. "It's hilarious," said the landlord, Stevie, who curiously enough supports the rival Edinburgh club, Hibernian. "Romanov is just a dictator," added Pete, although he expressed himself more saltily.

Strangely, the man described in the Tynecastle Arms as a dictator - and much worse besides - is also the man whose patronage led to Tynecastle being saved, and to the best season the club has had for half a century. In May last year, Hearts finished second to Celtic in the Scottish Premier League, thereby qualifying for this season's f hugely lucrative Champions' League. In the same month, the club won the Scottish FA Cup. Scottish football's traditional duopoly of Rangers and Celtic, the so-called Old Firm, had been, if not broken, then at least seriously challenged. Which makes it all the more bizarre that for an increasing number of Hearts fans, Vladimir Romanov is the enemy.

Aptly for a story that involves lots of back-stabbing, Romanov won Hearts - and briefly, hearts - in part because of a man called McBeth. In October 2003, before a European Championship qualifier between Scotland and Lithuania at Glasgow's Hampden Park, the president of the Lithuanian Football Association, Liutauras Varanavicius, told his Scottish counterpart, John McBeth, that he hoped to introduce more Lithuanian players into Scottish football, perhaps by directing Lithuanian money into a Scottish club. McBeth apparently advised him to look at the clubs that were financially unstable. The logic was irrefutable: when a white knight arrives on his charger, nobody much cares whether he comes from the east.

Varanavicius went home and reported this conversation to Romanov, a former submariner in the Russian navy who as a young man had flaunted his entrepreneurial skill by selling bootleg Rolling Stones LPs out of the boot of his car. During the Communist era his growing fortune had attracted the interest of the KGB, but he survived their sinister scrutiny and for him, as for so many others, not least the future Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a licence to print money. In Romanov's case, almost literally so. In 1989, he helped to found a bank, Ukios Bankas. He knew that buying into the Scottish Premier League would give the bank the foothold in western Europe that he craved.

Romanov looked into the possibility of buying Dundee, Dundee United and Dunfermline, but then, almost as if he were working his way through the alphabet of struggling Scottish football clubs, he turned his sights on Hearts. He had already met Steve Cardownie, the Deputy Lord Provost of Edinburgh whose affection for the former Eastern Bloc was such that he had twice found wives there. Romanov was developing a similar affection for Scotland, although for sporting rather than romantic reasons. He was a financial backer of the Lithuanian football club FBK Kaunas, and a keen fan, but in Lithuania, where basketball is by far the most popular sport, football enjoys roughly the status that hockey does here. FBK Kaunas were league champions yet attendances rarely exceeded 400. Romanov the football fan was smitten simply by the Scottish passion for the game.

In an Edinburgh hotel room in early 2004, Cardownie, a Hearts fan, introduced Romanov to former chairman Deans, still a substantial shareholder at Tynecastle. "I went home and told my wife I'd met a Lithuanian banker who might buy Hearts," Deans told me. "She had to check the calendar to make sure it wasn't 1 April."

And yet, it seemed as though a submariner and a club holed beneath the waterline might just be made for one another. By the time Romanov had bought the shareholdings of Deans and Robinson, the club's future at Tynecastle seemed assured. Hearts fans - or Jambos as they are known, for the disappointingly prosaic reason that "Hearts" rhymes with "jam tarts" - rejoiced.

By now the club had a new chief executive, "Firework" Phil Anderton, a dynamic marketing man who coincidentally had come from Murrayfield, where he had run the Scottish Rugby Union with singular pizzazz, even introducing pre-match fireworks displays. Anderton was charged with finding a new manager to fulfil Romanov's heady ambition for the club, which, to much general scoffing, was no less than to win the ultimate prize in European club football, the Champions' League. The man he appointed, in June 2005, was a Scotsman, the highly regarded former Ipswich Town manager George Burley.

With Burley in charge, Hearts began the 2005-06 season in sensational fashion, winning their first eight league matches, one of which was a 1-0 defeat of mighty Rangers, the reigning league champions. It was the best start Hearts had enjoyed since the 1914-15 season; not only did they sit on top of the SPL, they were 11 points ahead of Rangers. Football enthusiasts in Scotland began to think the unthinkable, that the Old Firm's hegemony might at last be about to crack. Even for some Rangers and Celtic fans it was an appetising thought, not least because Scottish football had for so long been disparaged in England as a two-horse race, yet here was the English Premiership becoming just that, with even Arsenal unable to keep up with Chelsea and Manchester United, while a newly competitive Hearts led the SPL. Meanwhile, the fans packed into Tynecastle for every home game, scarcely able to believe the upturn in the club's fortunes, repeatedly and joyously sang "Vladimir Romanov" to the tune of "La Donna e Mobile" from Verdi's opera Rigoletto.

But, just as in Rigoletto things start to go pear-shaped, so did they at Tynecastle. Despite Burley's success, Romanov felt that the manager was exercising too much control over the club. Romanov, who considered himself an astute football tactician, liked to have the last word not only on signings but also on team selection. He insisted that an on-loan Brazilian player called Samuel Camazzola should play in midfield in place of Julien Brellier, a Frenchman popular with the Tynecastle crowd. Burley, who had never even seen Camazzola play before he was added to the payroll, refused. The writing was on the wall, figuratively as it would soon be literally in the form of obscene anti-Romanov graffiti. Romanov decided that Burley had to go, and seized upon a passing comment by Anderton to the effect that a member of staff had reported smelling alcohol on the f manager's breath. There was no stronger evidence than that to show that Burley was a drinker, but Romanov reportedly pounced on it - and on other unsubstantiated gossip about Burley's private life.

As he exited his usual Friday afternoon press conference on 21 October 2005, Burley stopped to ask the the reporter from Radio Forth, Mark Donaldson, how he might get hold of a pair of tickets for a forthcoming Robbie Williams concert. "For the wife," he added, laughing. Despite the growing tension with Romanov, he had no reason to think that he was about to lose his job, which by any standards he was doing outstandingly well. Yet by the following afternoon's kick-off against Dunfermline, Burley was the ex- Hearts manager. "We were in here for a pre-match pint when we got the news," recalled Kev in the Tynecastle Arms. "About 150 mobiles went off at once. We were top of the league! We couldnae believe it."

Anderton, the man who had so successfully hired Burley, was now told to compose another managerial shortlist. At the top of it were two famous names: British football's pre-eminent elder statesman, Sir Bobby Robson, and the former Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri. Anderton was aiming high, but on the other hand the challenge was a tempting one: the chance to build on Burley's excellent start and make Hearts the first league champions outside the Old Firm since Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen more than two decades earlier.

Yet within a week, "Firework" Phil had himself been singed by the Romanov candle. Romanov wanted his support in the sacking of Burley, Anderton refused to give it, so Anderton too was ordered to clear his desk. This news was received with horror by the chairman, the former Labour MP and lifelong Jambo Lord Foulkes, who duly tendered his resignation. It was Foulkes who, through his contacts at the House of Lords, had run background checks on Romanov and declared him a viable owner. At Hearts, memories were still all too vivid of a takeover bid launched by a man who turned out to be more or less penniless, living in a caravan on state benefits.

But Foulkes realised that Romanov, while financially strong, was starting to run the club as he had run his submarine, interpreting even the slightest dissent as insubordination. "He listens to no one," Foulkes told me. "He will not countenance any challenge to his authority. Yet the paradox is that he plainly enjoyed the adulation he got from the fans. When we won the Cup, he appeared in every single photograph of the team and players. But since then he seems to have done everything possible to make himself unpopular. He's a very complex man."

Once Foulkes had gone, Romanov, to nobody's great surprise, installed his son Roman as chairman. While Romanov spoke only the most halting English, Roman, a twentysomething graduate of Harvard Business School, at least was fluent. The search for a manager, by contrast, had begun to stutter. Ranieri's wage demands were too high and Robson was scared off by Anderton's dismissal. Yet the Hearts fans were still expecting a big-name manager when it was announced, on 8 November 2005, that the former Portsmouth manager Graham Rix had been appointed. This, to put it mildly, came as a shock, especially to those who knew that Romanov had taken a high moral tone over Burley, for in 1999 Rix had been sentenced to 12 months in prison for having unlawful sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl. However, those Hearts fans who objected to the appointment on moral grounds were treated by Roman Romanov to a gnomic old Russian saying: "A man who has been beaten by life is worth two who are unbeaten." It was harder for the Romanovs to deal with the charge that they had led the fans to expect a more illustrious name; at the time of his appointment Rix was also in the running for the vacant managerial position at non-league Crawley Town.

What the Romanovs felt they could count on with Rix, however, was what had been missing in Burley: unswerving loyalty. They evidently thought that the Englishman would be so grateful for the job that he would toe the line, which to an extent turned out to be the case, although in February last year, before a match at Dundee United, Rix admitted to his players that he had not picked the team that day; Vladimir Romanov had. By this time, Hearts had been displaced at the top of the SPL by Celtic. A few weeks later, after just 18 games in charge, Rix joined the ever-lengthening list of those impaled by Vlad. Although the club was still second in the league and had reached the semi-final of the Scottish Cup, the bemused fans in the Tynecastle Arms found themselves wondering for the second time in an increasingly surreal season who might be the new manager. The answer was Valdas Ivanauskas, a Lithuanian who had previously been first-team coach.

Almost a year later, Hearts no longer look like the team that split the Old Firm last season, and Romanov's ambition of winning the Champions' League looks more deluded than ever. But another of his ambitions is finally close to realisation: a branch of Ukio Bankas is about to open on Castle Street in Edinburgh, giving him the opening he wanted in western Europe. Meanwhile, Ivanauskas is still in the job, running a squad that now contains a diminishing number of Scotsmen but no fewer than seven Lithuanians. And Romanov, who turns 60 later this year, has the satisfaction of knowing that only one name appears more frequently in the Scottish press than his, that of Jack McConnell, the First Minister, who should now be aware that foreign investment in his country's ailing institutions comes at a price - even if the price is merely heartache in the Tynecastle Arms.