JAMIE MacDONALD lived through Vladimir Romanov’s turbulent reign at Tynecastle from start to finish. He holds the Russian banker personally responsible for Hearts’ financial collapse and believes he should be held accountable for his actions. Or, indeed, lack of them.
The goalkeeper graduated from Hearts’ youth academy in 2003 and eventually became the established No.1 last year. In between were some harrowing moments following Romanov’s takeover in 2005.
Players were threatened by the owner, team addresses were conducted through an interpreter, plane loads of Lithuanians arrived for mass trials and Romanov himself hijacked pre-season training to take penalties against the goalkeepers. Madcap would be a polite way to describe it.
However, the consequences of Romanov’s reckless tenure are now hitting home with Hearts in administration and in dire need of life support.
A total of 14 staff have lost their jobs, players’ wages have been halved and the only people preventing the club from shutting down at the moment are fans.
MacDonald is one of those who agreed to a salary reduction but, whilst signing the agreement, he noted the absence of Hearts’ former hierarchy. Having run the club into the ground, the former owner and board are nowhere to be seen since signing off with an email to staff last week.
“They have to take responsibility overall,” said MacDonald today. “They were the ones who made the final decisions and they’re the ones who have been looking at the books constantly. They probably had people advising them. I read the bit in the Evening News last week with Liutauras (Varanavicius), who was one of the directors here. He said he gave Romanov advice that, if you keep going, this is what’s going to happen. Now we’ve got to that point. He was well warned.
“Although we had good times on the field with cup wins and European nights, you have to balance it out. Romanov will probably take responsibility for the good times but he also has to take a lot of responsibility for what’s happening now. According to reports, it’s maybe not easy for him to be here because I think he’s got himself into a lot of bother.
“It’s not just the club, he is in a bit of trouble personally. Not that you could forgive him for not being here but he’s got himself into a situation and he’s been declared bankrupt. He seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.”
At one point, Romanov was an ever-visible presence at Tynecastle and seemed to take up permanent residence in Edinburgh. “When he first arrived I was just coming out of the under-19s so other boys were more involved with the first-team squad than me back then,” continued MacDonald. “He would come in and chat to the squad through his interpreter. I remember one pre-season over in Austria he came over to the goalies during training and wanted to hit penalties into us. At that time it was new and I suppose funny in a way. You’re thinking he’s a bit eccentric.
“He would come in for team meetings and give his little speeches through his interpreter. Some of the meetings were a bit mental to say the least with threats and what not, especially in the early days. That was his character.
“You don’t know if it was a psychological thing to try and get a scare factor going. It’s a difficult culture over there to what it is here. I think that was something he didn’t quite grasp at times.
“Not long after Romanov took over I remember it was Christmas time and I was in the under-19s. He brought about 33 players over and we played three trial games in the space of three days. Our same team played against three separate teams (of trialists). We ended up signing about 12 of them and I remember we had 70 or 80 players on our books at one point.
“We were carrying so many players in those days who were doing nothing. We’ve cut back since then over the last two or three years but most of the damage was done at the start.”
Players who rebelled against the chaotic regime were threatened with being frozen out of the first team.
That happened to the likes of Steven Pressley, Andy Webster, Jose Goncalves, Marian Kello and others.
The infamous “Riccarton Three” of Pressley, Paul Hartley and Craig Gordon addressed the media in October 2006 to betray the unhappiness within the dressing-room at that time. Romanov responded with his usual warnings.
“I remember that well, just thinking ‘that’s our three best players and you’re threatening not to play them’,” MacDonald added.
“He threatened to drop them all because they had a little bit of an outburst against him. I was only a young boy then and I was sitting thinking ‘wow’. It was certainly different to what I was used to in the first few years of my football career. It was character-building. That was how he dealt with things, rightly or wrongly.
“It worked out okay in the end. Hearts got a lot of money for Craig, Paul was sold and Elvis left probably on decent terms in the end. It was a strange experience but it prepares you for just about anything in football now.”
Despite Gordon’s British record £9 million move to Sunderland, Romanov’s financial mismanagement continued. Money lavished on too many underachieving players has cost Hearts dearly, and there is a degree of resentment currently residing within the walls of Tynecastle.
“There is probably a little bit of anger there because it’s disappointing to see a club like Hearts go into administration and be in the state we are in,” said MacDonald. “Good people who have been here ten and 12 years and who had nothing to do with the state the club is in are getting punished and losing their jobs. There is anger towards that.
“I spoke to my wife about my wage cut and we decided it’s something we can manage.
“I have bills to pay like everyone else but it was pretty much a no-brainer in terms of wanting to help the club. I’ve been at Hearts since I was 14, which is pretty much half my life. Last week it really hit home what the club meant to me.
“I was upset with what had happened and I realised how much a part of my life it was.”