King of Hearts Does It His Way
Way back in the early months of the football season which is currently dragging itself towards its final weekends, we looked on with pleasant surprise as the Scottish Premierleague took on the most peculiar shape, providing as it did the first genuine signs of competitiveness outside the traditional Old Firm rivalry in a generation.
The early growing pains of Gordon Strachan's Celtic stewardship and the persistent wretchedness of Rangers, coupled with Heart of Midlothian's Lithuanian revolution financed by banker Vladimir Romanov and the fine form of Tony Mowbray's effervescent young Hibernian side conspired to provide the top of the league with a quartet of contenders, a situation not witnessed since two decades previously, during the 'New Firm' pomp of Aberdeen and Dundee United in the 1980s.
As it transpired, the title race finished in familiar fashion, with Celtic triumphing by a similar margin to that enjoyed by Martin O'Neill's side in his three championship-winning seasons. However, in holding off a recovering Rangers for second place and access to the Champions League qualifiers, Hearts made sure that the season will still go down as a momentous one: they became the first side outwith the Old Firm to achieve a Champions League place, and the first side to split the Glasgow clubs in 11 years.
The success enjoyed by Hearts this season is proportional to the controversy and self-induced unrest which the club endured in parallel, and indeed almost challenges the notion that a club can only succeed in a stable environment with a strong manager and supportive board. George Burley's sacking after 11 unbeaten games and with his team occupying top spot (they had just taken a point from Parkhead, in a game which appeared to cement the seriousness of their challenge) appeared baffling at the least, if not downright suicidal. Sure enough the club's title challenge faltered under new coach Graham Rix and by the time Celtic defeated them at Tynecastle on New Year's Day, they trailed in second by five points.
Subsequently Rix - whose management had been undermined by the fact that Romanov appeared to retain a strong hand in team selection - felt the full force of a Lithuanian boot on his posterior and was replaced as interim first-team coach by Valdas Ivanauskas, Romanov's countryman and a former Lithuanian international, under whose charge Hearts stabilised and retained second spot.
Romanov has not only brought an unfamiliar look to the league table. He has also challenged much of the conventional practice within the game in Scotland. The idea that a club owner should have a heavy influence in matters relating to team selection and player recruitment is anathema in Britain, where the cult of manager as all-powerful benevolent dictator - as created by the likes of Stein, Busby, Shankly, Clough etc. - enjoys its strongest hold.
This notion, however, is actually quite unusual, with most countries in Europe operating with a culture which acknowledges the rather understandable notion that he who pays the piper can decide whether said musician should play at left-back or not. The outraged reaction of the Scottish football establishment at Romanov's interference was baffling to the Lithuanian: hadn't he, after all, saved the club from their enormous debts and the prospect of having to sell their spiritual home to housing developers? Did that not entitle him to call the shots?
Yesterday Romanov - as if feeling vindicated by the confirmation of their second place finish - provided his most robust defence of his methods yet. "Too often there has been a very limited approach by the coach, in terms of how you deploy your resources and why you change players," said Romanov. "Why is it like this? Why do the coaches not use players to maximum effect, depending on the type of match or the type of opponent? Also, it always seems to be 4-4-2, with little scope for variety.
"I've given my coaches full control of the team, full rights, and then the games have been lost. The only question I'm asking of my coaches all the time is: 'Show me the analysis. Show me the rationale'. But never once have I received an answer to those questions. It seemed to me that my driver back in Kaunas could have done a better job than Rix."
Romanov continued "The question I commonly ask the coaches is, 'have you forgotten that this is a game of 90 minutes?' The answer they always give is 'no'. So I say, 'well, why is the team only playing for 45 minutes? Do you know why the team is playing like this?' When the answer comes back 'yes,' then I say, 'well, if you don't put it right for the next game, I'll remove you.'"
The Lithuanian banking millionaire appears to fall into the category of charismatic, but rather mad club owners and presidents like the late Jesus Gil of Atletico Madrid or Florentino Perez of Real Madrid. Whether his methods can continue to be successful in British football, where managers have tended to be mandated to the hilt and given time to achieve results, remains to be seen. If Ivanauskas keeps the job of first team coach he will provide his chairman with a compliant and understanding employee. If Ivanauskas is not kept on, and after his experiences with Burley and Rix, one would imagine Romanov would not be keen to hire another British manager.
There is still much mystery as to the Romanov's long-term aims for Hearts, and as to why he chose to invest in the Edinburgh club. Perhaps, like Roman Abramovich with Chelsea, he desires the respectability and the path into British corporate society that ownership of a football club provides. Perhaps he wishes to make a genuine long term commitment to establish Hearts as Scotland's top club, as he has claimed. Whatever, in his first season he has resculpted the Scottish football landscape noticeably, both as evidenced by the league table and also in the unconventional style by which he carries out his business, and he will undoubtedly see the success of his first season in Scotland as his cue to carry on regardless.