Hearts sale on hold after Romanov’s assets frozen

UKIO Bankas Investment Group (Ubig), Hearts’ parent company, has had its assets blocked by order of a Lithuanian court. The ruling, handed down in Kaunas yesterday, means the company is prevented from selling or transferring anything it owns, including the football club itself.

“Any sale or transfer is forbidden,” Gintare Putnikiene, a spokeswoman for the court in Kaunas, said yesterday. The ruling came as part of a lawsuit against Romanov and his sister, Olga Goncaruk, conducted by several companies.

The companies in question say they are trying to recover substantial debts from the brother and sister. Romanov resigned from the Ubig board recently but retains a controlling interest in the group, while Goncaruk also has a stake.

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As well as freezing Ubig’s assets, the court said it had also frozen property belonging to Romanov and Goncaruk personally, and to Birac Europe AB, a company they jointly own which runs a metal works in Bosnia. The worth of those assets has yet to be disclosed, but it is believed that Romanov has not been cut off from all sources of funding. Earlier this year, he claimed to have lost his entire fortune, but has continued to travel extensively within Europe.

In February, Ukio Bankas, which is a separate company from Ubig but has also been controlled by Romanov, was forced into administration. Three months earlier, Ubig transferred a £6.8million security over Tynecastle to Ukio – meaning that, even before yesterday’s court verdict, the future of the ground itself was in the hands of the administrators. The freezing of Ubig’s assets will have no immediate effect on any negotiations over the sale of Hearts. Foundation of Hearts, the group campaigning for a supporters’ takeover of the club, are not close to making an offer for the club.

Two other groups, a Norwegian company and an Italian consortium fronted by former Livingston FC owner Angelo Massone, have previously shown an interest but are not involved in talks at present.

In the medium term, if the companies suing Romanov and Goncaruk are successful in their actions, the sale of Hearts is likely to be speeded up. Should the pair be told to repay their creditors, the only way to find the cash would be by selling their assets. The only difference from a completely open sale would be the creditors having a right of veto over any transaction.

This is close to the previous position as understood by those involved in negotiations between the Foundation, other fans groups and Hearts. They insist that the football club would have to settle its debts with Ubig and other creditors, currently amounting to more than £20m, before a sale could proceed.

Romanov and Goncaruk can appeal against the order within seven days, according to the court. Romanov refused to comment last night after being contacted by Lithuanian television channel LNK. Hearts also declined to comment after being contacted by The Scotsman.

The Foundation declined to comment last night as they had not had a chance to assess the news. It is understood, however, that they are not unduly concerned, as they have accepted since the demise of Ukio that Lithuanian administrators would have a role to play in any process which ended with a supporters’ takeover at Tynecastle.