Vladimir Romanov, the maverick owner of Hearts, turned to one of his advisors during the SPL match at Falkirk last weekend and asked, casually, in broken English: "Press, negative?"
"Oh yes," he was told. "Very negative." The news neither pleased nor displeased the 58-year-old Lithuanian, who three days before, from the deck of a nuclear submarine, had sanctioned the sacking of his coach, Graham Rix (after four months in the job), and director of football, Jim Duffy (one month). He merely nodded, and turned his attention back to the pitch, where his team snatched a 2-1 win.
Tomorrow, at Hampden Park, Hearts face Hibernian in the Scottish Cup semi-final, their most important game yet in an unusual season. Victory would make them red-hot favourites in May's final against Gretna or Dundee, who play in today's first semi. If they lose tomorrow, the race with Rangers for second place in the League - and Champions' League football next season - will become an anxious battle.
Romanov himself does not "do" anxious. He does ruthless. He does things his way, and so does everyone around him, or they don't stay around long. "Nobody can deny his approach is unpalatable to many," admits his own spokesman, Charlie Mann. "But he is driven, utterly, to succeed, and takes decisions accordingly."
Romanov has spent £12m buying 80 per cent of Hearts, hiring players, paying salaries and managing debt. He has yet to get a grip on the language, but as his son Roman, 30, now Hearts' chairman and chief executive, joked recently: "He has all the words he needs - 'Yes', 'No' and 'You're fired'."
Romanov Snr took his first steps to millionaire status by selling bootleg Beatles, Elvis and Stones records from the back of his taxi. He was conscripted to the Soviet Navy, where he spent the Cold War patrolling British waters aboard a nuclear submarine. That was why he was on a sub 10 days ago, visiting old comrades as part of the centenary of the Russian submarine service, which also involved a trip to see Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.
He grew a business based on textiles under Communism and saw it thrive after Lithuanian independence in 1991, when he bought into ex-state enterprises. He was on his way to a £260m fortune, plus a significant holding in Lithuania's first private bank, Ukio, and in football clubs including FBK Kaunas. He writes poetry to relax but has always been driven, he says, by his navy days, when the motto was: "Die, but do it."
"My conscription gave me a lot as a person," he said. "I may even say it gave me understanding of the meaning of life. It taught me what the duties of a human being are. In the navy, you forget all futile things."
He bought into struggling Hearts in early 2005, hiring George Burley in the summer and firing him in October, after eight wins and two draws.
"Irreconcilable differences" were cited for the parting. In fact, Burley resented Romanov's meddling (and buying players above his head) and Romanov disliked Burley's thirst for independence. Those in the know confirm that Romanov also wanted Burley to attend a drying-out clinic for a perceived drink problem Burley has always denied. Burley said no, and Romanov had his excuse to oust his manager, although not long afterwards Romanov was persuaded that a "culture clash" had led him to think too ill of a man who liked a pint with the fans. He might have had Burley back, had Burley had any inclination to return, which he didn't.
Romanov then sacked his chief executive, Phil Anderton, and forced the resignation of his chairman, George Foulkes, who branded him a "dictator" and a "megalomaniac". Anderton, like Burley, is still pursuing Romanov for compensation.
Slapstick turned to farce as Romanov promised a high profile coach and a director of football. Sir Bobby Robson was interviewed, as was Claudio Ranieri, who was rejected. His salary demands were too high, and, to paraphrase an insider: "Vladimir thought he was a pillock". Ottmar Hitzfeld's name was in the frame. Instead, Rix, who had just been interviewed by Crawley of the Nationwide Conference, got the job.
Two Hearts wins in Rix's first six games meant Celtic stole to the top of the SPL, and when Hearts lost 3-2 to Celtic on New Year's Day, the title race was effectively over.
Early last month Rix told his players Romanov was picking the team. Player power kept him in situ for a while before Romanov torpedoed him.
The search for a third manager in five months is under way, with Marco Tardelli, Lothar Matthäus and Nevio Scala under consideration. The interim coach is Valdas Ivanauskas, a former USSR and Lithuania international striker who worked under Romanov as the coach of FBK Kaunas. Winning the double there did not prevent Romanov sacking him, nor did the sacking prevent Ivanauskas taking up a coaching job at Hearts last year. "Mr Romanov is a perfectionist, both in business and football," he said.
Despite Romanov's methods, there is a consensus of appreciation among Hearts' fans, even Foulkes. "Go back two years and we were on the brink of selling Tynecastle, moving to Murrayfield, struggling to stay in the top six or seven and with an uncertain future," he said yesterday. "He's mercurial, he's ruthless, his son has no power and is told what to do, but in spite of his methods, you can't doubt the club overall is substantially better off."
"You have to take a reflective view," says Martin Laidlaw, the chairman of the Hearts supporters' trust. "We were heading for the abyss. So far, Vladimir Romanov has done everything he said he would. The controversy has been the manner and speed of his decisions. We're not used to such demanding standards and major decisions being taken so quickly.
"People are behind the project, but not blindly. We appreciate he's taken on the debt. We appreciate he's kept our core of Scottish internationals, Paul Hartley, Stephen Pressley and Craig Gordon, who's just signed a new deal. He's bankrolled players of a quality we'd not normally have expected. The stadium is being developed. We've got a good academy. The building blocks are in place. Right now we're second in the League, splitting the Old Firm and with an intention to go one better.
"We've raised the bar. That's the difference - and challenge - from now on. To think and believe in being winners."Reuse content