The journey from Kaunas to Gorgie
THIRTY Lithuanians are preparing to invade Hearts' Riccarton training base next month and a select few will have the opportunity to secure a lucrative loan deal with the primary club in the UBIG footballing empire.
For both the playing and coaching staff of FBK Kaunas, a transfer to Edinburgh represents the holy grail.
Romanov's Ukio Bankas Investment Group are the majority shareholders in Hearts and the bank itself finances Kaunas as well as the Belarussian side MTZ Ripo, so the possibilities of extending relations between the clubs would appear endless.
Valdas Ivanauskas has confirmed that Kaunas will make use of the facilities at Riccarton in January as they prepare for Moscow's Commonwealth Cup, but of more concern to the Hearts support will be who they might leave behind when they board the flight to Russia.
Since Romanov first became involved at Tynecastle in 2004, he has yet to let a transfer window pass without dispatching a Lithuanian to Edinburgh on one of his trademark loan deals. Saulius Mikoliunas and Deividas Cesnauskis arrived in January 2005, Edgaras Jankauskas followed six months later, Nerijus Barasa was recruited in January this year before Marius Zaliukas and Andrius Velicka were sent over from the former Soviet state in August.
All of the above are contracted to Kaunas and loaned to Hearts and Ivanauskas admits it's "possible" that more will follow, presumably with Romanov's permission.
Marius Kizys and Kestutis Ivaskevicius have also taken the Kaunas to Edinburgh route in the past, but they are both back in Lithuania having made minimal impact at Tynecastle.
The prospect of failure is no deterrent to those at Kaunas with the Hearts carrot constantly dangling in front of their eyes.
Eugenijus Riabovas, the club's head coach, guided his side to the Lithuanian A Lyga title in October and then opted to miss out on the title celebrations last month because he was in Scotland watching a Hearts' under-19 match.
At the time he was in line to take on the role of Hearts' temporary head coach from Eduard Malofeev, however that appointment never materialised and, for the moment, he continues with Kaunas.
Eimantas Puras, who deals with communication operations at Kaunas, recognises the ambition that exists at the St Darius & St Girenas Stadium.
"Kaunas, as a club, understands that the place for someone like Velicka is somewhere on a higher level than here," he says. "In Lithuania, if you are a good footballer, you are looking at where you can go because our level of football is not so high.
"Of course, it should be like that. When your team-mate goes somewhere where the football level is higher, it gives you more energy to try to follow him.
"The players here see some of their colleagues going to Scotland, but of course not all the Lithuanians are finding a place in the Hearts team.
It depends on the player. We have Marius Kizys back, we have Kestutis Ivaskevicius back now, so only Velicka is looking very good for Hearts.
"I understand Zaliukas was criticised a lot initially but now I hear he is getting better. You have to give them time to adapt because it's a new country, new stadiums and a lot more spectators than they are used to. They have a big responsibility when they move to Hearts."
Velicka and Jankauskas appear on the whole to have justified their existence in Edinburgh, and Zaliukas would certainly fall into the "rapidly improving" category.
Hearts Supporters remain unconvinced by Mikoliunas, Cesnauskis and Barasa but a further influx of their Lithuanian cousins should not be necessarily condemned as Kaunas believe they have one or two more prospects who will be able to impose themselves in Scotland.
"Before now, our best players would leave and go east to Russia but now we have the possibilities to go to western Europe," continued Puras. "We also have Lithuanians in Latvia and Estonia as well as on loan to Scotland. Only a few players will ever be happy to stay in Lithuania. Most are looking to go abroad where they can get bigger money."
So, which Kaunas employees might be granted a longer-than-expected stay at Riccarton come January? Hearts already have the Lithuanian player of the year in Velicka, who scored 14 goals in his native league before defecting to the SPL in August.
Other prestigious Kaunas players such as Edin Pehlic and Rafael Rodrigues Ledesma would find it difficult to obtain a UK work permit as they hail from non-EU countries Bosnia and Brazil respectively and are not internationalists.
Goalkeeper Mindaugas Malinauskas, though, is one highly-rated prospect which Romanov may have in mind for the day when Craig Gordon decides his future lies elsewhere. "We expect him to be a regular in the Lithuanian team soon because he can be a good goalkeeper," said Puras. "Malinauskas is 20 and is fighting for his place here along with Eduardas Kurskis so I think we are okay for goalkeepers at Kaunas."
Malinauskas arrived at Kaunas last winter from Zalgiris Vilnius and is regarded as a future Lithuanian No.1 by national coach Algimantas Liubinskas. Midfield playmaker Linas Pilibaitis is another who has attracted praise from Liubinskas and is considered to have a big future with his country. In defence, Kaunas have Tomas Kancelskis, the captain and stalwart who played as a pre-season trialist for Hearts against Osasuna. Kancelskis revealed to the BBC that he is desperate to secure a move to Hearts. "Tomas has been here for five or six years and he is like the cement of our defence," said Puras, although as Steven Pressley might testify those sentiments don't always guarantee a rosy future. "As captain, he controls our defence. He is a guy like Pressley. We can compare these two because Kancelskis is the Steven Pressley of Kaunas. He is our captain and he is a really strong personality here."
Ricardas Beniusis is an imposing striker who possesses a genuine aerial threat. He has also caught the attention of the footballing community in Lithuania.
Ivanauskas and Romanov considered bringing Andrius Bartkus, a holding midfield player who can also operate at centre-back, to Tynecastle in August this year. But Puras confirmed the 20-year-old is not yet considered ready for the strenuous task of weekly outings in the SPL. He said: "Bartkus is very young and I think he has to get stronger here before going to another level. Maybe he will have to fight hard here for another couple of years to improve himself."
That's precisely what the Kaunas squad do on a daily basis for, if you're a Lithuanian willing to fight hard enough and hone your talent sufficiently, then the rewards from Vladimir Romanov can be substantial.
Barry Anderson takes a look at the Lithuanian likely lads..
MINDAUGAS MALINAUSKAS is the international goalkeeper for Lithuania's under-21 side and is expected to make a serious impact on the full national side during 2007.
Aged 20, he made his full international debut back in March and coach Algimantas Liubinskas expects him eventually to succeed the current Lithuanian No.1 Zydrunas Karcemarskas. Malinauskas had an injury earlier this year but played several games for Kaunas during the autumn as they secured the Lithuanian A Lyga title.
He is recognised for his excellent shot-stopping skills but sources in Lithuania say the main weakness in his game at the moment is that, like any young goalkeeper, he can be inconsistent and lack concentration.
LINAS PILIBAITIS is a 21-year-old midfield playmaker, and another predicted to have a big future at international level.
Like Malinauskas, he is already a full international and his incisive passing and vision can initiate attacking moves from most areas of the field.
He is one of national coach Liubinskas' favourite prospects and is reputed to be similar in style to Hearts' Portuguese midfielder Bruno Aguiar.
TOMAS KANCELSKIS is the captain and part of the spine of the Kaunas side.
At 31 he does not offer the same potential for development as Malinauskas or Pilibaitis, but his leadership qualities would be an asset to any side. Kancelskis plays in central defence for the club and leads by example in both a playing and organisational sense.
He appeared as a trialist for Hearts in their pre-season friendly with Osasuna at Murrayfield in July, but was not offered a contract despite being keen to further his career with a loan move to Tynecastle.
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