Refreshed Ivanauskas back to revive Hearts

VALDAS Ivanauskas and Vladimir Romanov flew into Edinburgh yesterday in a bid to reverse the decline at Hearts which has seen the club slip down the league while being engulfed by unprecedented off-field strife.

Romanov met with supporters' representatives last night and attempted to allay their concerns about the direction in which Hearts were heading. But it is the return of Ivanauskas which will do most to assuage the majority of fans - provided he is allowed to run the team as he sees fit.

The popular head coach has been signed off with a stress-related illness since 23 October and his return should bring some much-needed stability to the club. So too would the restoration to the team of Steven Pressley and there were suggestions last night that the captain was in line for a recall at Inverness Caledonian Thistle this afternoon.

Ivanauskas will have a watching brief at the Caledonian Stadium before resuming coaching duties at Riccarton on Monday.

The Lithuanian, who had a short meeting with the players yesterday, said he felt refreshed and ready to begin the task of restoring Hearts' fortunes after a wretched run which has seen them fall from second place to fifth in the SPL and eliminated from the CIS Insurance Cup. He said: "I needed this rest because it was very hard and now I feel very good. I start on Monday with the team. My problems are my problems, but now I feel good and ready."

Ivanauskas was initially expected to return after a fortnight but prolonged his absence on medical advice. Hearts have failed to win a match since his departure, losing three and drawing two games under the charge of caretaker Eduard Malofeev, the former coach of Belarus and the Soviet Union.

Malofeev will remain at the helm for the Inverness game but is expected to revert next week to the advisory role he was brought to Hearts to fulfil.

"We need points now," Ivanauskas told the Hearts website. "Our priority is the next game against Inverness. I wished [the players] good luck and said to them we need fight. Our situation is not good, but I think it has been a learning time. Tomorrow we need three points and after tomorrow we will see what the situation is."

In his absence, Hearts have been bedeviled by problems. There have been tales of dressing room strife with a split between the Lithuanian players and the others. The restlessness has spread to the stands and 200 supporters gathered outside the ground after last Sunday's defeat by Rangers to protest at the way Romanov was running the club.

Ivanauskas alluded to the problems within the first-team squad yesterday when he stressed the benefits to morale of a return to winning ways.

"I think the first thing is that we need one win because psychologically it is very important because we need points and I think if we win games it will be a better situation in the table and [on] the training pitch," he said.

The head coach's return leaves the future of Eugenijus Riabovas in doubt. The FBK Kaunas manager had been due to take over as first team coach at Hearts on a temporary basis this month while Malofeev returned to Eastern Europe to attain his UEFA pro-licence. This now looks unlikely, although there may still be a lesser role for Riabovas given that Hearts have lost the services of assistant coach John McGlynn, who left the club yesterday to take over as manager at Raith Rovers. Stephen Frail, Hearts' youth coach, will replace McGlynn in the dugout at Inverness.

Sources at Hearts insisted last night that health issues dictated the timing of Ivanauskas' return rather than the urgent need for a steady hand at the tiller after a turbulent couple of months at Tynecastle.

The club were eliminated from two European competitions in quick succession and struggled to recapture the form of last season. Inconsistency of selection - 59 line-up changes were made in the first 11 games of the season - was put down to interference by Romanov, and a home defeat by Kilmarnock last month proved to be the breaking point for Ivanauskas. The coach returned to his native Lithuania for talks with the club owner which culminated in Ivanauskas being signed off sick and booking himself into a health spa.

Four days later, Hearts went into meltdown when Pressley and fellow senior pros Craig Gordon and Paul Hartley hijacked a press conference to voice their dissatisfaction at the way the club was being run.

Pressley read a statement on behalf of "a number of players" in which he told of poor morale and significant unrest in the dressing room. Stories then emerged about a plot to oust Pressley as captain and the defender was left out of the team for recent matches with Falkirk and Rangers.

The skipper's restoration to the starting line-up today, combined with Hearts' first league win since 1 October, would have a beneficial effect not just on Ivanauskas but on the health of the club in general.

• Mauricio Pinilla, the striker Hearts signed on loan in the summer from Sporting Lisbon, is still in his native Chile receiving treatment on a calf injury he sustained while playing for the national side in a friendly against Paraguay on 15 November.

The former Chievo and Inter Milan forward has not played for Hearts since September and has been fit enough to start just two league games for the club all season. Compounding the supporters' frustration is the fact that on the few occasions Pinilla has played he has looked a gifted addition to the team. He scored in each SPL match, against Inverness and Aberdeen, but was sent off at Pittodrie after picking up a second booking for celebrating excessively. Since he last played for Hearts, Pinilla has twice travelled to South America to play for Chile and picked up injuries on both occasions.

Pinilla has graced the top flights in Italy, Spain and Portugal but his club appearances have been sporadic since his arrival in Europe.