There is suddenly a stranger in Scottish football who is also one of its most familiar faces. The significant aspect of the remarkable-looking Scottish Premierleague this morning is not the table itself but the date. It is the middle of October and nine rounds of fixtures have been played yet neither Rangers nor Celtic is at the top. Only a passing knowledge of the game is necessary to realise that in Scotland this is as newsworthy as the sun failing to rise at dawn.
The league leaders are Hearts, a permanent part of the domestic furniture but a club that have not won the championship for 45 years and who along with all the others in Scotland had in effect disappeared off the radar in terms of posing any sort of threat to the Old Firm. By this evening the unlikely pacesetters will at last be knocked off the top on goal difference if they lose to Celtic at Parkhead, but this refreshing adventure has only just begun. A sequence of eight consecutive victories at the start of the season, marred only by a draw in their most recent match, promises to be the foundation for that rarest of spectacles: a substantial challenge to the Old Firm’s grip on Scottish football. Parkhead’s 60,000 seats sold out a fortnight ago and the fixture is being discussed with the sort of interest that is routinely the preserve of the Celtic-Rangers derby.
There was a similar level of anticipation when Rangers travelled to Edinburgh three weeks ago for the day when many thought Hearts would finally be put in their place. But a 1-0 win put them 11 points ahead of the defending champions. Suddenly everyone took a more serious look at Hearts and specifically the new and enigmatic stewardship of Lithuanian banker Vladimir Romanov.
Rangers are in the Champions League, Gordon Strachan is in his first campaign as manager of Celtic, but Romanov and Hearts are unquestionably the story of the Scottish season so far.
No one has fully explained why Romanov, who is worth £260m, became interested in investing in Scottish football other than it might allow a platform for his Ukio Bank Investment Group to gain
a foothold in western Europe through the Edinburgh financial community. Rom-anov initially courted Dunfermline and Dundee United, which are now disguising their jealousy, and then attracted scepticism over the ousting of popular Hearts manager John Robertson and his apparent delay in releasing funds for transfers.
When he finally acted, though, he was decisive and impressive. George Burley was recruited as manager and high-calibre signings were sanctioned including 2004 Champions League winner Edgaras Jankauskas, Greek Euro 2004 champion Takis Fyssas, and Czech international midfielder Rudi Skacel, who scored in every one of Hearts’s opening seven league games.
Romanov has transferred the club’s £19.6m debt to his own bank and has shown a determination to impose some players on the club, which has caused unease. Yet this single-minded 57-year-old, who once served on a Soviet nuclear submarine that secretly patrolled Scottish waters during the cold war, does seem to have an inexplicable enthusiasm for making Hearts a success.
Can they win the title? No club except Rangers and Celtic has done so since Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in 1985. But the Old Firm are living within their means after spells of extravagant spending. Romanov has sanctioned wages of about £10,000-a-week for Jankauskas and Fyssas, which takes his club close to being a rival to the Old Firm at least in terms of the transfer market.
The January transfer window will be significant. If Hearts’s winning form en-dures, they will have to strengthen their talented but thin squad because Celtic and Rangers will invest in an attempt to shake them off. But today’s clash will be revealing. Ferguson felt his Aberdeen teams showed they could be champions when they started getting positive results in Glasgow. And all those years ago they did it, with the help of a young midfielder called Strachan.