Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov (right) is no Roman Abramovich. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Analysis: John F. Molinaro
Romanov is making Hearts bleed
Last Updated Friday, Nov. 10, 2006
The man many hoped would pump new life into one of the oldest soccer teams in Scotland has instead bled the club dry of credibility.
In February 2005, Lithuanian businessman and banker Vladimir Romanov became a major shareholder of Scottish Premier League team Heart of Midlothian F.C., most commonly referred to as Hearts.
Romanov's arrival on the scene, not unlike Roman Abramovich's at Chelsea, gave a renewed sense of hope to Hearts supporters and long-suffering soccer fans across Scotland who had grown tired of watching a league that was considered a laughing stock in the rest of Europe.
When the NHL ground to a standstill two years ago, Gary Bettman explained he locked out the players to fix the economics of the game, to ensure greater competitiveness across the league.
With all due respect to Mr. Bettman, the pre-lockout NHL was the picture of parity compared to the SPL.
For the past 21 years, two Glasgow teams, Celtic and Rangers, collectively known as the Old Firm, have dominated Scotland's top division. Sir Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen was the last club outside of the Glaswegian duo to win the Scottish league title. That was in 1984-85.
Scottish soccer fans have endured more than two decades of Old Firm domination, as Celtic and Rangers have more times than not ended up 1-2 in the standings, with Hearts often finishing a distant third.
The "Romanov Revolution" was supposed to change all of that. Not only did the Lithuanian pay off Hearts' massive debts, he also invested millions of pounds of his own money in the troubled Edinburgh club.
Backed by Romanov's big money and with esteemed manager George Burley at the helm, many predicted Hearts would finally break the Old Firm duopoly and would soon be playing in the Champions League.
Hearts were the toast of Scotland when Burley led the club to the top of the SPL standings after going unbeaten through the first ten games of the 2005-06 campaign with eight victories, including a 4-0 whitewash of Edinburgh rival Hibernian.
Imagine the shock, then, when Burley unexpectedly resigned just hours before Hearts were to play Dunfermline Athletic last October.
Though both parties said the manager was leaving by mutual consent, the timing of the resignation -- a day after Romanov announced a bid to take over private control of the club -- fuelled media speculation that Burley and Romanov had a tense relationship.
Something was going on behind the scenes at Hearts that didn't seem quite right, and it soon came out that Romanov took a hands-on approach to running the club, including buying players without consulting Burley.
Insurrection within the club grew -- chairman George Foulkes resigned in protest after chief executive Phil Anderton was dismissed -- before things came to a boil this past February.
New manager Graham Rix told several players, disgruntled over their lack of playing time, that Romanov had been selecting the team's starting lineup for months and was essentially pulling all the strings.
Romanov agreed to meet a players' delegation, led by club captain Steven Pressley, to hear their complaints about how the Lithuanian was running the club. The meeting settled little and instability at the club continued when Romanov fired Rix the following month.
Lithuanian Valdas Ivanauskas replaced Rix as manager and even though he guided the club to victory in the Scottish Cup final, Hearts collapsed down the stretch and finished second behind Celtic. Another league title for the Old Firm.
Romanov's campaign of madness at Hearts continues to wreak havoc this season.
In the summer, Scottish national team member Andy Webster left Hearts for English side Wigan Athletic. The star defender was embroiled in contract talks with Romanov last season and when the two couldn't come to terms on an extension, Romanov decided to bench him.
But the biggest controversy came when Romanov warned he would sell all of his players if Hearts didn't win its match against Dunfermline last month. Prior to the game, Pressley responded with a statement voicing the players' unhappiness with the state of affairs at Hearts and that there was "significant unrest" in the locker-room.
Hearts and Dunfermline drew 1-1. We'll have to wait and see until January, when soccer's transfer window re-opens, if Romanov delivers on his threat.
In the mean time, Celtic sits comfortably atop the SPL standings with a 13-point advantage over Hearts headed into this weekend's action, and if their current form is any indication, the green-and-white giants from Glasgow should wrap up the league title by Christmas.
So much for Romanov's revolution.
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