Hearts owner in Old Firm bribery row

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The Independent Football

Vladimir Romanov, the owner of Heart of Midlothian, was at the centre of yet another raging controversy last night after reportedly accusing Celtic and Rangers of "buying off referees" in Scotland.

A spokesman for the Lithuanian multi-millionaire insisted that comments made to Futbol, a Russian magazine, had been inaccurately translated. "Vladimir did not say at any time that officials had been paid off," the spokesman said. Romanov's aides even enlisted the help of a Russian professor, based in Scotland, to attest that "although the wording could be construed to mean he said what was reported, he didn't actually say that".

Romanov is currently in a legal dispute with the Scottish FA after he appealed against a £10,000 fine for accusing Scottish referees of bias last season. The SFA had no comment to make yesterday about this furore, pending further investigation into the original text.

Even if no action is taken, other large sections of what Romanov said will serve to enforce the view that he is wildly eccentric, even paranoid. Asked why Eduard Malofeev had failed to win a game in his four-week period as one of Hearts' many managers last year, Romanov said: "If you've got five people in the team working for Rangers and Celtic, what do you expect?"

Hearts transferred Steven Pressley and Paul Hartley to Celtic in the January transfer window after the two players, along with goalkeeper Craig Gordon, had publicly revealed "significant dressing-room unrest"in October. Another former Hearts player, Andy Webster, is now on loan at Rangers, having originally left for Wigan.

Romanov also owns interests in the Lithuanian club FC Kaunas and MTZ Ripo Minsk of Belarus. He says in the Futbol interview that they are "the base of [my] pyramid", and effectively act as feeders for the top of that pyramid, Hearts.

Asked about his time at Tynecastle, and how Hearts seemed to be on the verge of an authentic challenge to the Old Firm last season, he said: "Celtic and Rangers? Even Kaunas are a match for them on the pitch. They have turned football into a type of showbusiness with their underhand games."

The answer continued with the disputed quotes: "They buy off players and referees. When it comes to weaker teams then nobody can help. But if two opponents are equally matched then the referees have a real influence on the outcome."

Speaking about Britain in general, he said: "I went there with the hope that I'd be able to avoid all the dirty stuff that we've all grown used to here [in Eastern Europe]. I thought that there everything was clean. But it turned out that there everything was worse."

On the club's future, he said: "That's for God to see."

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