DCSIMG

Vlad draws aside the iron curtain

TWO years ago, few people in the Capital knew very much about the multi-millionaire Lithuanian banker Vladimir Romanov.

To most Hearts fans, he was a shadowy figure who had emerged from Eastern Europe with a bulging suitcase and an optimistic boast to make the club one of the most powerful in Europe.

Among the scant details that were known about the fiercely-private businessman were that he had amassed a personal fortune worth more than 300 million through, amongst other ventures, the Eastern European bank Ukio Bankas and Lithuanian football club FBK Kaunas.

He had also previously hit headlines in Scotland with failed takeover bids for Dundee and Dunfermline before turning his attention to the then-crisis-hit Jambos - a club facing the prospect of losing their stadium and facing bankruptcy.

But although a rough outline has since emerged of the Hearts owner's life and times - such as his early career as an illegal businessman in his home Soviet state and his time as a submariner - very little detail has emerged.

And even when the 58-year-old comes into the limelight these days, it's more likely to involve him launching into a scathing attack on journalists or football agents rather than to discuss his poverty-stricken childhood or time spent in military service.

But a new documentary, to be shown on BBC Two Scotland tonight, has attempted to fill in the missing details about the mysterious figure who has cheered from the stands, lifted the Scottish Cup - and controversially sacked successive managers during the team's most successful, and eventful, year for decades.

Following team affairs from the tumultuous final few games of Graham Rix's tenure as manager to the Scottish Cup final win last month, the film - called Romanov: King of Hearts - shows unprecedented footage of access to Romanov's business dealings in Edinburgh and his personal life in his hometown of Kaunas. And it paints a portrait of the millionaire Lithuanian as a ruthless family man who built up his fortune after being born into poverty.

When the film crew follows him back to the communal home in Kaunas, where he shared a single room with his parents and sister, Romanov is quick to point out the hardships that he faced as a child. "My father was a Russian military man," he explains. "And we came here to Kaunas in 1954, when I was eight.

"Under the Soviet regime, owning property was illegal so we just had a room where there was one big bed. My father bought four stools, the iron bed and a table but that was everything we owned.

"Later, he bought a sofa as well, which was where my mother and sister slept, and I was on the camp bed. But it seemed so big at the time. I even used to ride my bicycle inside this room."

DESPITE the cramped living arrangements and meagre possessions, he stresses that family life was enjoyable although he was catapulted into adulthood at the age of 15 when his father suddenly died, although the cause of his death is not revealed.

As the only man in the house, he was forced to become a manual labourer and provided money and food for his family for three years until, under Soviet law, he was drafted into the military after turning 18.

"All young Soviet men are drafted into the army, navy or other military services, so I went to the navy and a submarine detachment.

"There, all my values changed and I started to appreciate my home and family. I realised that I might lose them one day.

"But I remember the training. Every six months or every year, we would have training with torpedo barrels - where they would put you in, open the hatch and fill them with water.

"There would be three people in at a time and I remember being the last to get in. You were meant to knock three times and you would be let out, but you were never really sure whether you would get out alive.

"I had water up to my lips and when I turned around to breathe, I swallowed a mouthful of water. I nearly choked, but I was determined not to knock.

"I still sometimes have that feeling like I'm trapped in a coffin filling with water. But it meant that I also started to appreciate what life in a submarine means. It doesn't allow for mucking about."

Young Romanov spent three gruelling years as a submariner before joining the Soviet fishing fleet, where he started to bring back textiles from around the world and sell them for profit back home in what would become his first business venture. He also worked as a taxi driver in Kaunas, earning up to 50 roubles per day which he ploughed back into his illicit business.

But with tight laws restricting private businesses in the Soviet nation, his dealings soon caught the eye of the KGB, which put him under surveillance - much to the horror of his wife, Svetlana.

"Some nights I just had to sit and wait for him," she tells the film crew in the modest one-bedroom apartment they own in Kaunas - a mere half-mile away from Vladimir's childhood home.

"I thought he could have been arrested at any time, so I was very nervous and very worried."

WITHIN months, he was put on the KGB's blacklist and following a tip-off from a neighbour, he fled to the mountain resort of Dombai in the early 80s and started a hotel business with his young son Roman, who is now Hearts' current chief executive. "Once you're on the blacklist, nothing can rescue you," Vladimir adds sombrely. "Your case is handed directly to the KGB investigators.

"I have to thank that man who rescued me because there were others who got eight or ten years in the gulag. And it was only when the Gorbachov era allowed co-operative enterprises in the Soviet Union that I realised I had a legal right to go back and provide materials for factories. And when workers were given the chance to buy share certificates in industries, I was able to buy shares and vouchers in the factories and, later, the bank that they were attached to."

It was this purchase of Ukio Bankas - the bank which currently sponsors Hearts - that led him into his 15-year association with football after a purchase of a factory in Kaunas led him to buy the football club attached to it.

These days, he has links with three clubs - Hearts, FBK Kaunas and Belarus team Minsk MTZ-RIPO - as well as having a filing cabinet in his office full of statistics and scouting reports for players from across the world.

And despite having a huge fortune from his business dealings, he admits that his love of football is the most enjoyable part of his professional life - a passion that has led him to pay thousands of pounds to have games beamed back live on Lithuanian television and jet from Eastern Europe to Scotland on a weekly basis.

"When I first came to Scotland, I tried to buy Dundee but the Lithuanian football federation told me that Hearts were in a really bad financial state and asked if I would be interested in the club," he says, before admitting that he couldn't be happier with his purchase. "I want to have a hotel and conference hall here and a glass dome to cover it.

"We could have 25-28,000 people at every game and I want to see a sports culture centre built here for the fans. "They are so special and I think Edinburgh fans are real football connoisseurs.

"I promise to build a new stadium here and it will have the best atmosphere in the world."

As he stands on the Tynecastle pitch and looks up at maroon-coloured stands at the end of the documentary, the once-poor and humble Vladimir Romanov raises his arms in a messianic pose.

To some, this may only be the Scottish division of an empire he has built up from a lowly door-to-door business to a global power.

But to the thousands of Jambos who revelled in last month's Scottish Cup success, he'll forever be the club's saviour.

• Romanov: King of Hearts will be broadcast tonight on BBC2 at 9pm

VLADIMIR ROMANOV ON . .

BUYING HEARTS

"After I tried to buy Dundee, I was told that Hearts were in a really bad financial state. They were on the verge of being bankrupt. I was asked if I would be interested in the club and I said yes. Then I got together with Leslie Deans and we negotiated the purchase of shares."

APPOINTING GRAHAM RIX

"What attracted me was his desire to win and I liked his previous work. I thought with all the media interest in him [surrounding his past as a sex offender], he would side with me. If I'd taken a 'star' manager, he would have broken up the team and done it his own way. The team was already there and was up and running.

I needed an experienced coach to lead them."

ON SACKING RIX

"When he made a new signing, I didn't like the player he was buying but I said 'OK' and agreed to it. But then there was a second, who I didn't like. And then a third.

"I asked him to write down a list of the characteristics of the players he signed to show why they would fit in with the club, but three weeks later he hadn't done it. He needed to be punished."

ON DEALING WITH PLAYERS

"The players came to me and asked me to wait with the sacking [of Rix].

"I told them 'OK, I'm prepared to wait but I still think it is a mistake'."

GRAHAM RIX ON ROMANOV

"The bottom line is he's the boss. If you're working in the merchandise shop, you do what he says and, likewise, if you're the manager you have to do what he asks.

"He owns the club and is the guv'nor. If you're employed by the club, you'll do what he says."

 
 
 

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