Ivanauskas' turn to visit the brink

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The Independent Online

How much Vladimir Romanov knows about football is still open to debate. What is beyond dispute is that Heart of Midlothian's millionaire owner knows plenty about making headlines.

The maverick Lithuanian was plastered across every back page in Scotland last Saturday because he had rounded up every journalist he could find and told them that he did, indeed, pick the team. A few hours later, Hearts lost at home to St Mirren.

Coincidence or not, the destabilising effects of Romanov's admission on Valdas Ivanauskas - the "head coach" - and the Hearts players became swiftly apparent. Sparta Prague came to Edinburgh on Thursday and inflicted a 2-0 defeat in the first leg of their Uefa Cup first-round tie that will probably see Hearts knocked out of their second European competition before the autumn leaves have fallen.

A month ago, Romanov was ebullient. The promised land of the Champions' League - and an £8m payout - was 180 minutes away, once AEK Athens had been taken care of. Hearts, though, were beaten 5-1 on aggregate by the Greek side and swept aside by Sparta in similar fashion. Romanov sacked two managers last season, one - George Burley - when his team were top of the League. So, what price failure for Ivanauskas?

It seemed as if the poor guy would be fired in public before being packed on a plane back to Lithuania, when the Hearts PR team sent out an email on Friday informing everyone of a press conference at Edinburgh airport tomorrow. Ivanauskas, though, has dodged the bullet for now - a subsequent email insisted the conference was to announce a sponsorship deal.

Ivanauskas will be in the dugout at Fir Park today to face Motherwell. However, should he lose, few would bet on him still being at Hearts in October. Ivanauskas admitted on Friday that he did speak to Romanov after the Uefa Cup defeat but that his future was not discussed.

That seems strange, given that Romanov rarely has an unexpressed thought. Last week he attracted Uefa's scrutiny because of claims that the Russian referee who sent two Hearts players off in Athens had taken bribes.

"Yes, I spoke to Mr Romanov but we just discussed the game," insisted Ivanauskas. "Every manager depends on results and they have not been the best recently but if you want to find out about my future you have to ask Mr Romanov. It is the lowest point of my time at Hearts but I am more concerned with the psychological state of my players." The concern is mutual. "Valdas is a good manager but it is the players who have let him down," said full-back Robbie Neilson.

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