Various options but few bidders as Romanov seeks Hearts exit strategy

Negotiations could be protracted, says Stuart Bathgate

VLADIMIR Romanov’s announcement that he will consider finding a partner or selling Hearts is only the first step in what could be protracted negotiations about the future of the Tynecastle club. Getting someone else to share the financial burden of running Hearts may be his first option, but if that fails he has a number of separate routes available to him.

Much depends on how quickly Ukio Bankas Investment Group (Ubig), which owns Hearts and in which Romanov has a controlling interest, needs to generate money. If there is no urgency, Romanov could take his time in discussions with potential purchasers. The painstaking process in which he mulls his options over before arriving at a decision suggests the club will not change hands rapidly.

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“When we looked around for a potential new owner six years ago there was no-one else, only Vladimir,” former Hearts chairman George Foulkes said yesterday. “So it was Hobson’s choice then.

“All we can hope this time is that Romanov has shown the potential of the club – that might make it more attractive. I’m thinking particularly of when Phil Anderton was chief executive and the size of the crowds for our games at Murrayfield.”

However long it takes for Romanov to attract interest, there are half a dozen exit routes he could take out of Tynecastle.



Even before he bought control of Hearts from Chris Robinson, Romanov declared his willingness to co-operate with the Scottish business community. Seven years on, while sponsorship deals large and small have been struck, no-one is thought to have come close to agreeing to the kind of partnership which the Lithuanian businessman has in mind. According to Hearts employees who have been privy to the early stages of talks with some potential investors, Romanov’s combative approach to negotiations has been a big problem.

Even if the current owner was at his most amicable, the main question is what any partner could hope to get out of joint ownership. An invitation to put money into Hearts simply to help Romanov cut down on his own obligations would not be the most attractive option to anyone hoping to get involved with the club.


If he does choose to sell, the ideal position for Romanov would be to get a return on his investment, but it is inconceivable that any new buyer would be willing to recompense him for the millions he has spent on what has been a grossly inflated wage bill at Tynecastle. Realistically, the limit of his ambition has to be to break even on the current position of the club by having a new owner buy out the debt, which is currently running at around £30 million.

But anyone wanting to take over a football club is always keen to maximise the funds they have available – so they can buy new players, for example, or, in the case of Hearts, pay for a new main stand at Tynecastle or an entirely new stadium elsewhere. Paying £30m just to get Romanov out of the way would severely limit the room for manoeuvre which any new owner had.


Romanov loves to play hard ball in business deals, but his disillusionment with football could persuade him that this is, for once, a time to compromise. If he puts Hearts up for sale at a more reasonable price he could attract more interest.

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What is more, a smooth handover to a new owner would ensure the gratitude of the majority of Hearts supporters. That may not be a tangible asset, but it would assuage Romanov’s ego, allowing him to conclude that he had left the club a decent legacy.


Failure to sell the club in its entirety could leave Romanov looking at other ways to reduce his exposure to the kind of losses Ubig has had to sustain with Hearts. Robinson’s exit strategy in 2004, to sell Tynecastle and rent Murrayfield, was hugely unpopular, and anything similar under Romanov could provoke large-scale protests.

Hearts in any case have said they plan to sell Tynecastle and build a new stadium on an as yet undetermined site. Supporters have been sold the move on the grounds that they will have a new home to go to.


As with any business which does not find a buyer willing to take it over as a going concern, there is a destructive option available: sell as many assets as possible, including players, to raise funds and hope you attract a purchaser attracted by the notion of starting from scratch with minimal obligations.

This option would go further than just selling the ground, and would also turn Hearts fans against Romanov. But if Ubig needed money quickly and could find no-one willing to take the club off their hands, it could become the most tempting path.


In the case of an inability by Ubig to find a buyer or to meet their current obligations, going into administration would be an option. The problem for them is that they would not escape from Hearts’ creditors by doing so, as the bulk of the club’s debt is owed to Ukio Bankas.


Romanov’s persistence has been one of his principal strengths in his business dealings. If he cannot find a buyer who comes close enough to meeting his terms, he could stay put and wait patiently. Again, this would only be feasible if Ubig were able to maintain their commitment to Hearts.