ANATOLY Korobochka was announced as Hearts' interim head coach last night, becoming the third man to be in charge of the club this season, and the seventh to hold the reins in the 25 months since Vladimir Romanov took over. No timescale has been put on the appointment, which at present is only meant to last "while Valdas Ivanauskas is away on football business".
Yesterday's announcement on the club's website, and an interview with the assistant coach Stephen Frail, constituted the first official explanation of Ivanauskas's absence. The Lithuanian, who only returned from a period of sick leave in December, has been absent from Hearts since shortly after their last competitive match, the home draw with St Mirren.
The nature of Ivanauskas's "football business" has been unspecified, and the Lithuanian is expected to remain a Romanov employee in some capacity. With Hearts' hopes of European qualification in the balance, however, and Ivanauskas's credibility suffering on a number of fronts, the club's majority shareholder has clearly decided the time is right to steady the ship.
Ironically, it was around the same time last season that Ivanauskas himself was given that task when Graham Rix was dismissed with third-placed Rangers whittling away at Hearts' advantage. Ivanauskas helped secure second place, and was in charge when the Edinburgh side won the Scottish Cup, but he has been unable this season to take them close to the heights they enjoyed in 2005-06.
George Burley was in charge at the start of that campaign, having taken over from John Robertson, who was the boss when Romanov completed the purchase of Chris Robinson's sales and initiated his reign on 1 February 2005. John McGlynn was the caretaker head coach between the effective dismissal of Burley and the appointment of Rix, while Ivanauskas was also classified as an interim boss last season after the England international was dispensed with.
This season began with Ivanauskas's temporary status being made "permanent", then when he went on sick leave Eduard Malofeev briefly took charge. Malofeev's time at the helm was not a success, and he is now manager at MTZ Ripo, the Minsk club in which Romanov also has a controlling interest.
Korobochka has been a confidant of Romanov's for some time, and has been Hearts' "sporting director" since the start of the season. A former coach of CSKA Moscow, he was for a while part of a coaching triumvirate at Hearts along with Malofeev and Ivanauskas.
Given that background, he may have appeared the obvious choice to take over from Ivanauskas, but he has been passed over before and possibly came close to missing out again. Kestutis Latoza, a former national coach of the Lithuania team, said this week he had been in talks with Romanov. Although Latoza added that the entrepreneur has charge of three teams - Kaunas being the other - there was little doubt where the priority lay.
At Hearts' annual general meeting on Tuesday, Roman Romanov, the chairman and son of Vladimir, made disparaging references to Latoza's supposed record without deigning to mention his name. It was unclear, perhaps as intended, whether Romanov was sniping at Latoza himself, at media reports about him, or about both.
Whatever, it would now appear that Latoza, whatever hopes he may have harboured, has little chance at the moment of moving into a position at Hearts. He may be given a try-out as assistant coach next season, but things at Tynecastle change so rapidly that anything pencilled in now cannot be relied upon to come to pass in the summer.
In that sense, the fate of Latoza may be similar to that of Eugenijus Riabovas, with the significant difference that the latter actually turned up in Scotland last autumn and told others he expected to start work as head coach. He was disabused of that notion a couple of days later and has not been heard of since.
The Hearts website lent no credence to the speculation about Latoza, as it has not published a word about the man so far. However, it does not follow that there was no interest in recruiting him - after all, not a word about Tuesday's agm had been posted until last night, three-and-a-half days after it took place.
That is despite the promise made at the agm by Romanov junior to attempt to improve communication with supporters. And similarly, yesterday's announcement communicated very little beyond the bare facts.
"Hearts today confirmed that Anatoly Korobochka is filling the role of head coach on an interim basis while Valdas Ivanauskas is away on football business on behalf of the club," the statement read.
"Stephen Frail remains in the position of assistant head coach and other football staff continue in their roles unaffected. Both Anatoly and Stephen have jointly led training sessions this week and they will prepare the team thoroughly for Monday night's Bank of Scotland Premierleague fixture against Motherwell at Fir Park."
Speaking at Riccarton yesterday lunchtime, Frail sought to portray the position at the club as normal. "The situation is that I have been taking training for the last couple of weeks," he said. "Valdas is away on football duty and I have been in touch with Anatoly who has been here the whole time, so basically I have been told to get on with organising the team.
"I don't know how long that will go on for. I have been in touch with Anatoly and he has been keeping me right with things and he has been feeding that back to Valdas. I don't see any problem.
"They just said Valdas will be returning, but I don't know in what role. I will leave that to the people that make the decisions on that side.
"I don't really see there being a problem. I have been really enjoying taking the training and getting things ready.
"We have spoken to the players and kept them in the loop about what is going on. It is not as if it's a new face that has come in. They are used to me being here and we have got professionals that have dealt with this in the past."
Frail added that Romanov would continue to have a say in team selection. "We have teams in mind and what we are going to do," he said. "I have got a team in mind, I know Anatoly is wanting to see it, and that will go to Mr Romanov. I imagine we will all sit down and pick a team together."
From Robbo to Russians: Romanov's Hearts coaches
JOHN ROBERTSON (3 Nov 2004-9 May 2005)
Succeeded Craig Levein as head coach. Vladimir Romanov was in the process of buying Chris Robinson's shares at the time and gave the appointment his approval. Robertson took Hearts to semi-finals of both cups but failed to qualify for Europe. Offered the position of assistant head coach but refused and left club.
GEORGE BURLEY (30 June-22 Oct 2005)
Appointment of former Ipswich manager was a major coup. Rebuilt the side with a string of impressive signing and won club record first eight SPL games of the season. However had a poor relationship with Romanov and parted company in dramatic circumstances after just ten league matches and with Hearts unbeaten at the top of the SPL.
JOHN McGLYNN (22 Oct- 8 Nov 2005)
Placed in interim charge following Burley's exit. Oversaw four SPL matches, winning three and losing one to keep Hearts top of the SPL. Returned to role of assistant coach following appointment of Rix.
GRAHAM RIX (8 Nov 2005-22 Mar 2006)
Controversial choice given his past conviction for a sex offence. Sacked after just 135 days in charge . Reasons given were: poor results, "inappropriate" January signings and disappointment at the leaking of allegations that Romanov picked the team.
VALDAS IVANAUSKAS (22 Mar 2006-present)
Put in interim charge following Rix's sacking. Secured second place in the SPL and won Scottish Cup. Landed the job permanently but has found things trickier this season. Off for five weeks on "sick leave" and is currently away on "football business."
EDUARD MALOFEEV (23 Oct-27 Nov 2006)
Former Russia coach who was Hearts' sporting director was placed in charge when Ivanauskas was off sick. Failed to win any games and returned to Russia when Ivanauskas recovered.
ANATOLY KOROBOCHKA (2 March 2007-present)
Belarussian appointed interim head coach yesterday.