Eccentric Astra owner Niculae is a keen hunter – and managers and players are fair game
ON THURSDAY, Celtic will play host to an Astra Giurgiu side who have been under the charge of new head coach Oleg Protasov for less than a fortnight. Assuming, of course, that the former Soviet Union striker lasts that long in the post. He wouldn’t be the first Astra coach to endure a decidedly brief tenure at the club. He wouldn’t even be the second. Or the third. Not when the megalomania of owner Ioan Niculae makes even infamous Atletico Madrid autocrat Jesus Gil look like a choirboy.
The corpulent 60-year-old Romanian, who has bankrolled the club since 1996, is his country’s richest man. A billionaire with a fortune built on agriculture and farming chemicals, he is ranked by Forbes magazine as the world’s 1,372nd wealthiest individual. At times, it has seemed that figure might be the number of football coaches Niculae intends to work his way through before he goes to seed.
A passionate hunter, those in charge of his team have always been fair game for bagging. Protasov is the club’s 17th head coach in little over five years, and the third in 2014 alone. Of the 34 separate coaching stints since 1996, only two have lasted more than a year. Protasov’s predecessor Daniel Isaila was only reappointed for a second spell in May, but found that a Romanian Cup success did not buy him time on his return. Patience appears to be a vice in the world of Niculae. Once suspected of being an informer for Romania’s secret police during the brutal regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, his interpersonal skills seem to have been honed in that dark era.
Last month, he was banned from all football-related activities for calling referee Ishtvan Covacs a “world champion hustler,” following an ill-tempered 4-1 loss at CFR Cluj which saw red cards for two Astra players.
Isalia must then have known he was on his way out since, at the same time, Niculae also labelled his squad “bloated mercenaries… shame on them, shame on them, the bastards.”
Such are the outbursts of a man who, in 2010, went to court to challenge, and win, a claim for almost £100 million in unpaid taxes and last year was accused by state prosecutors of winning unlawful discounts from Romanian politicians for his gas company, InterAgro.
His utterances are legion, and legendary. In April 2013, he dispensed with the services of Valentin Sinescu as he called his players “incredibly weak…they’re shaking in their panties, and that’s the truth”.
Niculae then sacked Sinescu’s replacement, Marin Barbu, after seven days.
The owner’s most egregious act of firing and hiring occurred during a television interview two years ago when he lost the plot after coach Bogdan Stelea had stated that his newly-assembled team needed time after two draws against recently promoted teams.
Completely misunderstanding what had been said, Niculae raged: “If Stelea thinks Astra is a newly promoted, then he should start looking for a new place to work. We’re the worst team in Liga I. That’s it, Stelea is sacked!”
The job was then immediately offered to a former Romanian internationalist sitting in the television studio.
Niculae will argue that his input has transformed Astra and it has, in all manner of ways.
Although the club claim a history going back to the 1920s, bouncing about the lower divisions for 60-odd years, the current incarnation really only came into being in 2009. Then the club were known as Astra Ploiesti, the second part of the name referring to the city, 35 miles north of Bucharest, where they played.
Earlier in the decade, Astra had merged with Petrolul Ploiesti, having, for a season in the mid-1990s, also dispensed with the Astra element and been known as Danubiana Ploiesti, through merging with Danubiana Bucuresti. The current Astra Giurgiu were born when Niculae moved the club lock, stock and barrel to the Marin Anastasovici Stadium, in the main city of Guirgiu County, one hour’s drive south from capital Bucharest.
Typically, Astra attract crowds of around 3,000 to the 7,500 modern stadium which Celtic will visit on Europa League duty in a fortnight.
This is the second successive season that the arena is hosting continental competition. Before that, Astra had never savoured European football in any of its forms.
They did so in 2013 only after a Nicalue rant in which he castigated his squad for a poor run, threatening: “They’re incapable, impotent morons. I’ll act. No one shall be spared.” However, a good few were spared, as it turned out, for the current campaign, which represents a first for the country’s cup holders.
The players earned Astra a place in the group stages of UEFA’s second-string tournament, most notably ousting Lyon at the play-off stage.
Their league campaign so far has proved stuttering – Isaila was jettisoned after a 1-0 home defeat to lowly Vitorul and Astra sit fourth in the table.
Likewsie the club’s efforts in Group D have hardly been a cause for satisfaction. A 5-1 opening game loss away to Croatia Zagreb was followed last time out by a 2-1 defeat at home to FC Salzburg.
Yet the typically harsh treatment of Isaila was still a cause of disquiet among the Astra squad.
The club was even moved to denounce an article in a sports paper last week which claimed that the “atmosphere in the locker room is about to explode over Niculae’s drastic action”.
Against such a backdrop, Celtic’s double- header against the Group D’s fourth seeds in the next three weeks would seem to offer them a glorious opportunity to bank the six points that would take them to a ten-point total – and within touching distance of reaching the knock-out stages.
But Celtic manager Ronny Deila, who led his previous club, Stromsgodset, to victory over the Romanians in the final of Spanish-hosted off-season tournament, Copa del Sol, only eight months ago, is making no assumptions.
He said: “So far they have been a level down from the three others [in Group D] but, again, it is small details in European football.
“They have some good players, they are wealthy, they have money, so there is nothing that is going to be easy.
“It will be a tough game, but I think we are looking better and better.
“Also, we have some good results in Europe. It is going to be huge game on Thursday. If we win there we could find a very good position in the group and really fight for going through.”
The threat to that ambition at Celtic Park in four days’ time could come, more than any other player, from Astra captain Constantin Valentin Budescu.
The attacking midfielder has netted four times in his nine appearances this season. A supposed favourite of the club owner, who was moved to “praise” the 25-year-old in March this year.
“This punk eats too much. A seven-year-old has a bigger brain,” said Nicalue.
And seven-year-olds engage those brains ahead of talking more than it seems Romania’s very own nasty Nic does.