Webster latest victim of the Romanov rule

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Accusations of conspiracy have hung in the air all week at Tynecastle. Vladimir Romanov, the capricious owner of Heart of Midlothian, feels that one of his top players, Andy Webster, has divided loyalties.

Romanov transfer-listed the Scotland defender after saying he could not trust Webster in the vital three remaining games that might earn the Edinburgh club a place in the Champions' League. Romanov, an ex-Soviet submariner from Cold War days, suspects that Webster and his agent have been trying to engineer a move to Rangers.

Yet when it comes to being torn between two camps, the conspiracy theorists are having field day with Celtic, who go to Tynecastle today with the Scottish Premier League title won and in the knowledge that they can do their fiercest rivals in if they sit back and allow Hearts to win to move within 90 minutes of securing second place, and a Champions' League prize.

For the first time, Celtic are in the position to do Rangers a favour. Even some of their supporters are unsure about winning and letting Alex McLeish's third-placed side claw back the gap on Hearts. That core-shaking bemusement is matched by Rangers fans who have to sit and watch the television this afternoon, cheering Gordon Strachan's side every step of the way.

It has been suggested that Strachan might field a weakened side now that he has nothing to play for. Indeed, in business terms, Celtic cannot escape the cold logic of denying their biggest competitor, access to the arena that allowed Rangers to earn £12m this season.

Football, though, is not played on paper or boardrooms. It is simply about winning, regardless of the consequences as Strachan and Neil Lennon point out. "If I score the winner it might be the first time the Rangers fans have shouted for me in my career," said Lennon, who has had death threats from his rival fans before. "If we do Rangers a favour, so be it, we did Hearts a bit of a favour last week. We took a couple of points off them [Rangers] when we weren't at our best. The players are looking forward to it. It's first versus second so we want to show everyone that we are still top dogs."

Strachan also dismissed conspiracy theories. "My players have shown great determination to win the title by 20 points," said the Celtic manager. "So you can't really tell me that they are going to discard all these things, it just doesn't work that way."

However, Lennon does have empathy with the Hearts players who have pursued the new champions all season. Romanov's autocratic nature has seen him sign 23 players this season and sack two managers, a chairman and a chief executive. Webster's furore was merely the latest in a long line of bad headlines.

"I do have a certain sympathy for the players," said Lennon. "They are going for something that the club has never achieved before and they have got to put up with the circus going on behind the scenes. At times, the stuff that's coming out of there is almost laughable."

Tynecastle will discover today who has the last laugh. Romanov or Rangers.

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