Madness in the court of the King of Hearts
Former submariner, who won Lithuania's 'Strictly' and changes managers for fun, welcomes Spurs tonight
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Thursday 18 August 2011
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 multi-millionaire 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 have installed a managerial hotseat 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 the Scottish capital's busiest revolving door.
Prior to that there was Valdas Ivanauskas being dispatched on sick leave – no doubt with a spinning head after making 59 team changes in 11 games under the direction of the owner. Then there was Anatoly Korobochka's 33-game reign despite his being unable to speak English. Eduard Malofeev is another curiosity. Appointed as a caretaker from his position as director of football, the 64-year-old did not win a game in six weeks and then returned to Russia to complete his Uefa coaching licence. He later popped up at Partizan Minsk, another club owned by Romanov.
Romanov's take on getting rid of Jefferies was characteristically bullish. "With only one competitive win in 15 games," he declared, "only fools and idiots would not raise questions and suspicions." He also turned on the "media monkeys" who questioned his actions, a theme he has regularly touched on. Another favoured target has been the Old Firm who he once suggested tried to "buy off players and referees."
"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."
Suffering may have been pre-determined for Hearts supporters. In 1914, in the middle of a run of 48 years without a major trophy, they were running away with the Scottish league when the First World War began. The second half of the 1950s were the glory years with two titles and a Scottish Cup garnered through the likes of the Terrible Trio – Alfie Conn, Jimmy Wardhaugh and Willie Bauld – and Dave Mackay before he moved to Tottenham. A long drought followed that should have ended in 1986 when they began the final day of the season needing a point at Dundee to take the title. They fell seven minutes short when Albert Kidd, a striker who had not scored all season, found the net. Down in Paisley, Celtic won 5-0 to snatch the crown. At Dens Park they sat down on the terraces and wept.
There has been much wailing and gnashing over recent seasons, but it is not a straightforward picture. Romanov effectively 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 recently had meetings with the SPL – executives travelled to Lithuania – over league reconstruction in which he reiterated his belief that developing club academies is the only way for Scottish football to survive.
His relationship with the football authorities has rarely been cordial, likewise with a number of his managers – Graham Rix, his controversial appointment to succeed Burley, and Laszlo took to the courts following their abrupt departures – and players too have taken umbrage. In 2006 Steven Pressley, the club captain, was supported by Craig Gordon and Paul Hartley in making a public statement to express disquiet at the way the club was run. Pressley was stripped of the captaincy, dropped and was soon on his way.
Pressley now manages Falkirk in the First Division. "It's ludicrous," he commented after Jefferies' departure. "But nothing really surprised me. It's become a position where people just now accept what is happening. For me there is no strategy, no plan, no end-game for Hearts."
Romanov insists there is an end game; breaking the Glasgow duopoly. He turned up and happily kicked a ball around at the club's training facility at Heriot-Watt University on the city's outskirts on Sergio's first day in charge. He has been an erratic attendee in his time in Scotland – from November 2008 until April last year he did not attend a single match.
He is still based in Lithuania where most of his business interests are. Two years ago he declared an intention to stand for the country's presidency but was barred from running because although he is a Lithuanian citizen he was born in Russia. His father was a Red Army soldier who was stationed in the Baltic state.
After his father died, Romanov left school aged 16 to work as a taxi driver to help provide for the family. The Romanov legend has it that he made extra cash by selling bootleg copies of Beatles records before he joined the Soviet navy and became a cook on the K19 nuclear submarine. Years later he was to buy the vessel and turn it into a museum "as a symbol of those heroes who prevented a third world war".
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, the club remain at Tynecastle, although it's in need of work, and the team remain the ones most likely to challenge the Old Firm. "Thank you for not beating me up," said Roman as he departed one AGM summing up the uneasy relationship with supporters.
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.
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