Romanov takes step to full Hearts control

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The Lithuanian multimillionaire yesterday agreed a deal to raise his 29.9 per cent stake to 55.5 per cent by buying the 26.6 per cent of shares owned by SMG media company, Bank of Scotland and individuals including the Hearts director George Foulkes.

That agreement means Romanov is obliged to make an offer for the remainder of Hearts' shares, and he has tabled a bid of 35p a share. The offer values the club at £4.42m, which may yet prove a steal if Hearts go on to win their first title since 1960 and claim access to the Champions' League.

"Hearts has the potential to develop into a major player within European football," Romanov, 58, said. "We can build the business, both on and off the field."

Romanov assumed £19m of debt when he bought a controlling interest in Hearts this year. He has also bankrolled an improved wage structure to attract players, with nine arrivals over the summer.

Hearts have begun the season with an unbeaten run of 10 games, including eight wins to start, to lead the table by three points from Celtic, who travel to Kilmarnock tomorrow. Hearts' capital rivals, Hibernian, are third, seven off the pace, and travel to Aberdeen this afternoon.

Last season's champions, Rangers, are trailing in fourth, nine points behind Hearts. Anything less than a win at home to Motherwell today will lead to a further shortening of the odds on their manager, Alex McLeish, being sacked.

It was McLeish's misfortune that Rangers could not convert one of their season's most dominant displays - against Artmedia Bratislava in the Champions' league in midweek - into a win.

In most other seasons, that 0-0 draw, in isolation, would have been accepted as an unlucky result. Yet against a backdrop of 13 dropped points in the Scottish Premier League already, it seems to have nudged McLeish to the edge of the precipice. Without a string of wins, he could be a goner.

Today's match, which completes the first set of fixtures of the season, will be McLeish's 200th in charge at Ibrox.

"There is no reason why we can't have as good a second quarter [of the season] as Hearts have had in the first to make a fresh assault on the championship," he said. McLeish's opposite number today is Terry Butcher, a former Ibrox hero. "You're always under pressure as Rangers manager," he said.

"But Alex has the belief, is a proud man and will fight to his last breath and take everything on the chin to come out on the other side."