A tsar is born in Romanov

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HISTORY, they say, has a strange way of repeating itself. Events this week at Hearts would seem to bear that out. A century ago, one Elias Furst, a Russian-born entrepreneur, became chairman of Hearts and used his financial acumen to save the club from threatened bankruptcy. He stepped down three decades later in 1935, having seen Hearts play Rangers in a Scottish Cup semi-final watched by a crowd of 102,661.

A hundred years on, another Slavic patron has emerged. Having ruled out England and put failed flirtations in Fife and Tayside behind him, Vladimir Romanov has decided that home is where the Hearts are.

If, as seems likely, Romanov completes the 868,888 purchase of Chris Robinson’s 19.6% holding by the December 8 deadline he has set, and then goes on to buy out Leslie Deans (20%) and Robert McGrail (10%), he will have spent in the region of 2.2m to acquire the Gorgie club. Add to that his intentions to clear Hearts’ existing debt burden and commit 10m in transfer funds, and you have an initial investment of around 32.5m.

Clubs around Europe are crying out for that kind of cash right now, so Hearts have every right to feel that they have struck lucky. The question is: why did Romanov choose them, and, more generally, why Scotland?

"We have chosen Hearts because they are an Edinburgh club and Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland," explained Romanov on Friday. "Our bank already has financial interests there and now we have the chance to develop a parallel involvement in football.

"The level of debt at Hearts and Dundee were roughly the same. But, ultimately, there is a difference in the ambitions and potential of a club from the provinces and one from the main city."

That would appear to be a sideways dig at the "provincial" denizens of Dens, Tannadice and East End Park, all of whom talked to Romanov during the last nine months. Dundee, who came closest to reaching an agreement with the Lithuanian, were perhaps wary of another foreigner bearing gifts after the Di Stefano fiasco, but they must now be left pondering what might have been.

Like Roman Abramovich, Romanov shuns the limelight. Unlike Abramovich, his links with football run deep. Having bankrolled the domestic success of perpetual Lithuanian champions FBK Kaunas, and provided sponsorship for various other clubs over many years, he wanted a new challenge. The seeds of his Tartan dream, he says, were sewn during Kaunas’ encounters with the Old Firm.

"Ever since Kaunas played Rangers [in 2000] and Celtic [in 2003],we've established links with Scottish football. In spirit, I think we’re very close to the Scots.

"We wanted to realise our ambitions. We [Kaunas] have already won the title five years running, but we're not seeing any real progress. We want to try ourselves out at a different level. We want to win over the fans. Football is about fans, and we don't have any [at Kaunas]. In Lithuania everyone is interested in basketball. They get full stadiums, something we can only dream of."

In Scotland, meanwhile, Romanov believes he has found "the best fans in the world".

Nice as it is to think that Romanov was lured to Scotland by fan power alone, there must be other motives behind his persistent courtship of SPL clubs. 30m could, arguably, have bought him just as much influence in a medium-sized English club (20m would have got him 40% of Everton) but without the promise of the same impact.

In Scotland he can expect to guarantee a regular place in Europe. Moreover, if he is looking to expand existing business ties in Scotland, perhaps likely to increase after Lithuania’s entry into the EU this May, then ownership of a local club could have tangible PR benefits.

When news of Romanov’s Scottish ambitions first broke last December, comments from Kaunas director Kontrimas Romualdas sparked reports that the main plan was to create a staging post for Lithuanian talent. "It would be a fantastic showcase for our players in the European Union," he said.

The thought of being handed a huge wad of cash and then being told you have to spend it down at the Lithuanian cash-and-carry might be regarded as the football manager’s equivalent of watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your new Porsche.

In January, while still talking to Dundee, Romanov himself said that he "wouldn't rule anything out. It could be just one player, or all 11", before adding a note of realism: "It won’t depend on me, but on the quality of the players. We're talking about the Scottish championship after all, where you have to play against Celtic and Rangers - teams who are head and shoulders above Kaunas. But if the manager sees a player at Kaunas whom he likes, we'll be very pleased."

He has since sought to play down the idea, and has stated that he won’t get involved in transfer decisions. That said, the proposed arrival of Anatoly Byshovets as director of football - a title which primarily suggests overseeing of transfers - should certainly increase options for broadening the scope of Hearts’ recruitment drive. In addition to Russia and Ukraine, Byshovets has worked in Portugal, South Korea and Cyprus, and has this season been employed as a consultant at Kaunas.

Building a detailed profile of Romanov is not easy. Even Lithuanian journalists confess to having scant information on file. As with that other obsessively secret banker-cum-football-club-owner, Bahamas-based British financier Joe Lewis, whose ENIC Corporation have held sizeable shareholdings in clubs across Europe, there was until today only one picture of the publicity-shy banker in circulation and such is the paucity of hard facts that rumour often fills the void.

Though the Lithuanian’s name does not appear directly on the shareholder’s register, Romanov is widely acknowledged as the de facto owner of Ukio Bankas, which, according to the financial report for the first half of 2004, has assets of 1.319 billion litas (approximately 260m). He holds a 15% stake in Universal Business Investment Group Management (UBIGM), which in turn, in 2003, held a 5% stake in Ukio Bankas. His other interests are understood to include ownership of a textile corporation in the Baltics.

The links that exist between Lithuanian football and Ukio are quite extensive, and many of Romanov’s associates hold key positions in both. Gintaris Ugianskis, Ukio’s deputy chairman, is also president of Kaunas, while Liutauras Varanaviius, the bank’s chairman, doubles up as president of the Lithuanian football federation. Varanaviius has been actively involved in pushing for the Hearts deal, while the man handling much of the groundwork is Sergejus Fedatovas, a member of the Ukio Bankas board.

One of the most intriguing sub-plots of Romanov’s plans for Hearts will be the proLevein-Byshovets double act. Such continental-style collaborations can be fraught with pitfalls. At Tottenham, for example, where a pan-European ensemble of Jacques Santini, Frank Arneson and Martin Jol are divvying up the roles, there is already a sense of too many chefs - it is more blurred vision than Eurovision

Given his track record, Levein has every right to expect continued control over coaching, team selection and tactics, and Romanov has publicly voiced his admiration for the current management team.

How easily Byshovets - a tough old campaigner, who says that Russian club presidents are afraid to give him a job these days because of his outspoken approach - can be grafted on to the existing set-up remains unclear.

Overall, Romanov’s arrival will surely be welcomed, not just by Hearts supporters, but by those who crave an end to SPL groundhog day.

In England, Abramovich’s cash has helped to stir things up in a Premiership turned stagnant by the Arsenal-United duopoly.

Romanov may be a scaled-down version, and his starter for 10m would not have bought Didier Drogba’s right leg, but that is still the sort of transfer kitty that most clubs - Rangers and Celtic included - would drool over right now. Used wisely it could have a big impact.

Bridging the quality gap in the SPL is a tall order, but Romanov is offering Hearts the best opportunity in a generation to knock the Old Firm off their perch, and it will be fun watching him try.