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|John McGlynn||<-auth||Michael Walker||auth->||John Underhill|
|Jankauskas||[G Buezelin 78] ;[G O'Connor 80]|
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An icy resolve that has set Hearts beating
Michael Walker meets the sailor turned tycoon on a five-year mission in Edinburgh
Saturday October 29, 2005
Vladimir Romanov, from his days in the Russian merchant navy, recalled being trapped "on a small vessel" beneath a wave of ice in the Barents Sea "literally having to chip a way out". He grimaced. "If it's a large boat it rides the waves," he explained, "but if it's small you feel like you're in a submarine. When you come back up all you see is water - it provokes strong emotions. The first time is awful, I was hanging over the edge of the boat, very sick. When I eventually came round and gathered my senses I felt something stuck on my head. I thought it might be one of those fish with suckers. But it wasn't, my hair had turned to icicles. Normally salt water doesn't freeze but this was so cold, salt water froze."
Romanov's past was being tapped as he sat on the edge of his bed in a warm and well-appointed hotel on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Ever since this 58-year-old Russian-born Lithuanian started planning his takeover of Heart of Midlothian a year ago, the question asked almost daily has been: Why? What motivates a successful businessman to take on a foreign football club with a debt of almost £20m?
Complex factors, both business and political, make up the whole answer but one undoubted element stems from Romanov's personal experience. Being conscripted on to a Russian navy submarine during the Cold War is one thing, being harassed by the KGB for selling bootleg gear in the old Soviet Union is another, but setting off from Murmansk towards the Arctic Circle "on a small vessel", that's a memory to spur any man on.
Romanov's is a life lived and so, while the parting of company with George Burley prior to Hearts' 2-0 home win over Dunfermline last Saturday was extraordinary by British football standards, for Romanov it was a business meeting and he quickly moved on to the next. Disappointingly, confidentiality agreements signed by Burley and Hearts mean the ins and outs of the departure was off the agenda on Thursday.
It was the day after Hearts had won another SPL game without a manager to stay top of the league, three points clear of Celtic and 11 ahead of the champions Rangers. Romanov was again speeding from meeting to meeting, some about Hearts - Claudio Ranieri was met, while Sir Bobby Robson exited downstairs as Romanov talked in his room - and some about his "other business interests".
The latter have helped fuel the waves of suspicion that have hit Romanov since investigations into buying a stake in Dundee or Dunfermline led him instead to Tynecastle. Hearts were broke and faced the bleak prospect of having to leave their stadium to pay off their debt and lease Murrayfield. The club needed financial support and Romanov, who "owns" a bank in Lithuania, agreed to take the debt on board as part of his investment. Estimates of his paper value vary but most say he has about £200m. Just before Burley departed Romanov used some of that to up his stake in Hearts to 55%. Soon he hopes it will be about 70%.
"At the beginning I had in mind acquiring only 30% of the shareholding," Romanov said, via an interpreter. "But that was problematic as there was opposition among other shareholders. That's when we decided to expand the shareholding and acquire outright control. The process has been fraught, bureaucratic, and I had not expected that. We wasted a year. Maybe that was for the best, I don't know. All I know is time is slipping by."
Tynecastle can theoretically be enlarged from its present capacity of 18,000 to about 30,000 but the time factor Romanov referred to surrounds the construction of a new stadium in Edinburgh of "at least 60,000". This was in response to the question of where he saw Hearts and himself in two to five years' time. "My vision," he said, "is to acquire a site in Edinburgh, purchase or lease, and build a stadium of at least 60,000 capacity - certainly no less than the capacity you find in Glasgow."
The assumption is that Edinburgh, which has never staged a Champions League match, will have done so by then and that Hibernian will be sharing the new ground. As Romanov has said, not many capital cities in western Europe with major leagues can make that unwanted Champions League claim. Edinburgh's potential is obvious. Today Hibs host Hearts, third versus first and ticket demand exceeds Easter Road's 16,000 capacity.
As to why Romanov is here in the first place, he said: "I have been in football for 15 years as a sponsor of FC Kaunas in Lithuania. We won the league six seasons in a row but Lithuania is not a football country. I was intrigued by the paradox of those clubs elsewhere that spend lots of money and do not achieve success. That is because everyone in football is out to make money, and everyone does, except the club owner. So this is a challenge.
"In my days in the merchant navy I saw Africa, America and lately, as a businessman, China, Bangkok, too many places to mention. But Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, made a big impression on me. And when you accumulate capital you are looking to invest it wisely. I could have bought a castle, fancy aeroplanes, an island, but I wanted to find a worthy object, one where I would not just be spending my capital - wasting it - but properly investing it. The challenge of taking on a club in a country where football matters and turning it into a meaningful, profitable enterprise seemed a worthy one.
"I want to be responsible for a project, the like of which does not exist anywhere in the world. The [proposed] stadium has to be more than just a sporting facility, it has to be cultural, something that enhances the lives of children."
That is all very philanthropic. A couple of other factors not mentioned directly on Thursday have to be considered, though. If Hearts do leave Tynecastle, their home since 1886, prime Edinburgh land becomes available and Romanov is on the way to having control of its destiny. When describing his ideal management structure, Romanov said it is smart to have someone like George Foulkes MP as chairman "ensuring that we are on the right track in the political context".
The hope will be that colleagues like Foulkes and ownership of Hearts will confer credibility on Romanov's other interests, not least that Ukio bank of his. The subject of a City report in June which spoke of its "very modest financial strength", Ukio needs to trade with larger, established banks to improve itself. Concerned Hearts fans note only one player recruited during Romanov's time has been bought and Roman Bednar cost £300,000.
As Romanov quoted Pushkin, making sense of it all felt taxing. He might just reply it does not compare with chipping away at a frozen Barents Sea.
Taken from the Guardian/Observer
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