Bizarre battle for Hearts and minds

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

The owner of Hearts was shown on television the other day being thrown in the air by his players as they celebrated becoming league champions. It was typical Vladimir Romanov – hogging attention at the centre of things, milking a positive moment for all it was worth – but not typical Hearts.

The joyful players were from FBK Kaunas, the other main club Romanov invests in, who were grateful that his patronage had resulted in them becoming champions of Lithuania once again. No one should hold their breath waiting for those scenes to be repeated in Scotland any time soon.

Throw Romanov in the air? In Edinburgh there are many who would not trust him as far as they could throw him and one of many minor tragedies for Hearts is that the growing band of disillusioned sceptics includes some of their most influential players.

In what now seem like carefree, halcyon days early in the reign of the multimillionaire banker, Hearts began last season with eight consecutive wins to sprint into a handsome lead in the Scottish Premier League. They were an overnight sensation but a year later it has taken bad news to keep them in the headlines. The Romanov Revolution has soured.

To illustrate the extent of Hearts’ implosion, they have not won any of their last eight matches. If results go against them onSaturday they could even slip to sixth position in Scotland, which seems somewhat modest for a club Romanov boasted would win the Champions League by 2008.

How did it come to this? How did the man embraced as Hearts’ saviour, for funding high player salaries and sparing the need to sell their beloved
Tynecastle stadium, manage to alienate so many of his followers in a matter
of months?

Exasperation with the Russian-born Romanov and virtually all things Lithuanian – he is a naturalised citizen of that country and has flooded Hearts with its players and coaches – even led to Saulius Mikoliunas, Marius Zaliukas and Nerijus Barasa being booed by supporters when they took to the field two weeks ago. The episode left one of Romanov’s coaching staff alleging that the fans had been racist and then issuing a quick apology after the comment was splashed across newspaper back pages.

It was classic Hearts these days: misunderstanding, confusion and poor communication at a club where faceless Lithuanian players and coaches come and go like starlings on a telegraph wire.

Hearts supporters have nothing against Lithuanians, of course. It is just that what they felt they were promised from one of that country’s richest men has failed to materialise. The trouble at Tynecastle is not foreign ownership per se but that 81 per cent of the club’s shares are in the hands of such an erratic and unorthodox owner.

Romanov is a bona fide eccentric, a charmer who this month thought nothing of dipping into his reported £300m personal fortune to spend £10,000 on a magic wand used in the latest Harry Potter movie. But what at first seemed like brash and long overdue declarations to shake up Scottish football and establish Hearts as a real force now seem like vainglorious boasts from an egocentric businessman whose ruthlessness is matched by a tendency to act on flawed judgments about managers and players.

He did not realise how hard it would be to launch a sustained assault on the perennial superpowers from Glasgow, Celtic and Rangers. Hearts qualified for the Champions League and won the Scottish Cup last season in a memorable campaign. Yet they finished a yawning 17 points behind champions Celtic and were no nearer to winning their first title in 46 years.

Plenty of Hearts supporters still believe in Romanov but most do not know if they can trust him after becoming exhausted by an endless sequence of controversies, fall-outs, unfathomable decisions and managerial sackings. Including caretaker bosses, Hearts have had six different men in charge in 21 months, with Romanov accused of meddling in team selection with all of them.

Breaking point arrived when the popular Scottish club captain Steven Pressley was dropped for holding a press conference at which he talked of “significant unrest” in the dressing room over how Hearts were being run. Romanov has placated supporters by allowing Pressley to return – usually he comes down on critics and dissenters with a rod of iron.

The Lithuanian modus operandi would be tolerable for Hearts were it not for one thing: on and off the field the club is going backwards.

Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich has a lot to answer for. Supporters of every club in Britain envy Chelsea
for the apparently uncomplicated manner in which he delivers limitless resources. Pulses quicken at any rumours of a supposed “consortium of Russian businessmen” looking to take over anywhere else and that can lead to critical faculties being suspended.

A few of those Hearts fans who bought Cossack hats in a clumsy tribute to Romanov’s arrival two years ago are now chanting for him to leave. Many are terrified by the realisation that, under him, Hearts’ debt is thought to have risen from £19.5m to about £24m – he has transferred that debt to the bank he owns in Lithuania – and that if he were to sell or wind
up the club he could choose to flog Tynecastle to a property developer, pocket the proceeds to cover his investment and effectively disappear back to the Baltics.

Claims from Romanov that he is at Hearts “for the long haul” feel like a precarious foundation for one of Scotland’s great sporting institutions. There is no one else on the horizon with the means to bail them out.

It has never been entirely clear why Romanov bought a Scottish club in the first place. He has used Hearts as a shop window for players he intends to sell for large profits, although no such deals have materialised yet. He also correctly realised that even a modest investment in higher wages would attract players who could take the club to second in the league and in to the honey pot of the Champions League (although defeat in the qualifying round denied them the riches of the group stage).

But foreign ownership is rare in Scottish football. The lack of significant television income means clubs are much less attractive to potential owners than even a small English Premiership or ambitious Championship outfit, let alone those big clubs – Chelsea, Manchester United, Aston Villa – already in foreign hands.

The most quietly successful overseas investment in a Scottish club has delivered all that Romanov had boasted of for Hearts. And it is not from a “foreigner” as such at all. Dermot Desmond, the Irish tycoon, owns 40 per cent of Celtic. What makes him far more stable for his club than Romanov has nothing to do with his nationality but the fact he is so rarely seen or heard.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.