WHIle, happily, the situation has now been defused, at the root of Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov’s delay in paying the Jambos’ players on time may well have been a deep feeling of dissatisfaction – perhaps even betrayal – from six years spent attempting to haul Hearts into line with the Old Firm both on and off the pitch.
Rarely during the Romanov reign has the initial promise of Champions League glory and the ability to part with millions in exchange for star players seemed so distant as it does now, with Hearts fielding a team bereft of substantial quality and, for the time being at least, stuck with a stadium that, according to the club, is “suffocating” it.
A significant degree of progress has been achieved but a huge debt amassed in the process, and the club’s current current predicament does not match the vision Romanov had in mind when he began ploughing in his millions in an attempt to usurp Rangers and Celtic from the summit of the SPL. Now, there’s a concern among Hearts fans that Romanov is approaching the limit of his patience with, among others, Edinburgh’s city council, who he feels have proved obstructive in negotiations to redevelop Tynecastle, and the Scottish FA, the governing body he feels has victimised Hearts in disciplinary proceedings. The feared end result is that Romanov walks away, refusing to maintain his support for a project he is unable to grow and that is a financial drain on his portfolio of business interests.
“It’s perfectly reasonable to think that may happen,” said Leslie Deans, who served as Hearts chairman in the late-1990s. “People have pumped money into Scottish football in the past – none have had any thanks for that. You don’t get thanks in the boardroom – it’s part of the territory. If those in the boardroom who are injecting money don’t see any progress, you think, ‘What’s the point?’ and the enthusiasm is drained from you. That’s a human reaction. I don’t know what Vladimir Romanov is thinking, but all I’m saying is it would not be a complete surprise.”
Equipped with even a basic knowledge of the experiences of past football club owners, Romanov cannot have expected to turn Hearts into a personal money-making venture. More likely, he arrived – painted as a saviour who would keep the club at Tynecastle – with the notion of nurturing a vibrant, successful club within a modern setting. Deans argues that the environment required to achieve such aims does not exist around Hearts, particularly as Scottish football endures a “downward spiral”. “There is nobody in Scottish football who has made money from owning a football club in the last 10-15 years,” points out Deans. “The last person who has made money was Fergus McCann at Celtic. I can think of many, Eddie Thompson at Dundee United, John Boyle at Motherwell, David Murray at Rangers, and Stewart Milne at Aberdeen, who lost substantial sums – it’s the way that Scottish football has sadly suffered in the recent past. It has been been affected by [Scotland] being next door to a market [in England] which has hundreds of millions of pounds pumped in by TV and Scottish football stands as a poor relation, Never mind Hearts being unable to stand next to the Wigans, the brutal reality is Rangers and Celtic are unable to compete with these clubs, never mind at the top of the Premiership. That is the reality. One way in which that manifests itself is that all the Scottish clubs were out of Europe – although Celtic got a reprieve. That shows you the level we’re at. Scottish football is on a downward spiral and drastically needs reorganisation. That is what Vladimir Romanov is referring to, and he is 100 per cent correct in his assessment.”
Deans reckons a revival of plans to establish an Atlantic League would provide Romanov with hope. The idea, where top clubs in Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium and Portugal all compete in a season-long league campaign, was first floated at the turn of the millennium but requires approval from UEFA, which refuses to entertain the notion of a non-national league. While Rangers and Celtic have, at various points since such a setup was first mooted, expressed a keenness to be included in an international championship due partly to a lack of on-field competition in the SPL, Hearts’ ambitions to form part of an Atlantic League would parallel the Old Firm’s second major reason – to further increase a potential for optimum revenue.
Hearts’ participation in such a league could, says Deans, help alleviate some of Romanov’s grievances about Old Firm dominance and assist in facilitating a number of the Russian-born businessman’s ambitions.
“Football has to be seen as entertainment and the product at the moment is not attractive enough. There is a boredom factor with people watching the same routine – it needs to be freshened up so that clubs can make more money and compete at a higher level.”