The Russian who laid the foundations for Romanov

HAVING narrowly emerged from the shadows of financial disaster, Hearts are enjoying a remarkable change of fortunes, lifting the Scottish Cup and finishing runners-up to Celtic. With a new regime in place, the coffers have been bolstered by fresh investment, and the influence of a Russian-born businessman with roots in Vilnius - an astute operator with a fondness for poetry - is increasingly making itself felt on club affairs.

The year is not, as you would be forgiven for thinking, 2006; it is exactly 100 years ago, in 1906. Our protagonist is not Vladimir Romanov, but one Elias Henry Furst. Like most Hearts fans, Romanov could hardly be aware that, in assuming the reigns at Tynecastle, he was stirring up some haunting echoes of the past.

The clues are there, if you look closely enough. Glance up at the modest keystone that commemorates the completion in 1914, at the then princely cost of 12,000, of Tynecastle's old Main Stand - the one that the club's current benefactor is so keen to rebuild and expand - and you will see Furst's name among the list of Hearts directors.

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The rise of Elias Furst from teenage supporter to one of the longest serving chairmen in the club's history was, and is, nothing short of remarkable. Not least because he was Jewish, born to an immigrant rabbi, at a time when football remained the bastion of locals and gentiles. Yet he was to play a vital part for over three decades.

Between 1902 and 1935, he helped guide the club from crisis to financial safety, oversaw the development of Tynecastle, steered the club through the traumatic years of the First World War, and helped usher in one of the club's most successful managers.

To trace Furst's story, we need to return to the Baltics, to an area once known as Courland, that now forms part of modern day Latvia, but also took in parts of Lithuania and north-west Russia. Previously a German-speaking Duchy, it had become, under the Russian Empire, a largely Jewish enclave, in which Jews had greater freedoms than elsewhere beyond the Pale of Settlement, but were still not entirely free from persecution. It was there that, in 1844, Jacob Furst was born.

A bright religious scholar, Jacob Furst moved to Wilna in his 20s, to complete his studies at one of Europe's leading rabbinical schools. Wilna is now Vilnius - capital of Lithuania, the adopted home of Vladimir Romanov. It was there that Furst married Marion Ais. They had 10 children, with Elias the third born.

That Elias was born in Russia was a quirk of fate, as by the year of his birth in 1873, his father had already left Russia for Britain, where he held religious posts in first London and Hull, and then Middlesbrough. However, in the early 1870s he returned east and Elias was born, possibly in St Petersburg.

Back in Britain, the family made their way north to Edinburgh, where in 1879 Furst became the head of the Edinburgh Jewish Congregation, a position he kept for almost 40 years until his death in 1918. "He commanded huge respect in the wider community as well as within the Jewish congregation," says author Jack Alexander, who spoke to many of the older members of the Jewish community, some of whom could recall Jacob Furst, while researching his book McCrae's Battalion. When King Edward visited the city, Reverend Furst (he eschewed the title of rabbi) was chosen to represent Scotland's Jewish community.

Edinburgh boasted Scotland's largest Jewish community, one that had grown rapidly since 1816 when the first organised synagogue attracted worshippers from 20 families. By 1902 - the year Elias Furst was first employed by Hearts - the city's Jewish population was 2,000.

Coincidentally, the early focal point for Jewish immigrants was Dalry, where many were engaged in the waterproof clothing trade. Indeed, around the same time that Tynecastle was taking shape, a synagogue was being established under Jacob Furst's jurisdiction just a stone's throw away at Caledonian Crescent. Furst and his family meanwhile lived on the Southside, in an apartment attached to the city's main synagogue on what was once Park Place, now Potterrow.

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Jacob Furst began to take Elias to Tynecastle from an early age. One wonders how this might have been possible, with matchdays taking place largely on the Jewish Sabbath. Alexander says it was yet another sign of just how keen Furst was to ensure that his children and other members of the Jewish community strove for acceptance. "He felt that becoming Scots did not imply betrayal of their past: it was merely good manners towards a generous host."

By the age of 17, while serving his apprenticeship as a watchmaker, Elias had become the youngest ever paid-up member of Hearts. And, by all accounts he was also one of their most vocal. "He began to bombard the committee with gratuitous financial advice most of which went unheeded," writes Alexander. "He organised a brake-club to travel to away fixtures and dragged his entire family through to Glasgow to see Hearts win the Scottish Cup in 1901 at Ibrox."

Furst's enthusiasm was finally rewarded when he was appointed official club auditor in 1902. The team photograph of that year shows him perched at the end of the bench.

"I did not storm the castle," said Furst years later, revealing a wry sense of humour. "I crept inside one night when someone left the door unlocked."

Initially though, he struggled to make his voice heard. Furst was one of the few to caution against the plans to incorporate the club as a limited company in 1903. His reservations proved well founded as the venture was an unqualified failure that plunged the club into further financial crisis. When a new rescue scheme was devised, spearheaded by Robert Wilson - owner of the Edinburgh Evening News - and other leading members of the city's business community, Furst's star began to rise. Liberal councillor James Leishman was one of the first to recognise Furst's financial acumen, and insisted that he should be retained as auditor. According to Hearts historian David Speed, the 1905 Memorandum and Articles of Association, constituted for the new limited company, were essentially his work.

"Furst did not bring his own money to the club, but he did provide the wherewithal and acumen to ensure that it was used wisely," says Speed.

By the time Hearts won the Scottish Cup - for the fourth time - in 1906, Furst was held in sufficient regard within club circles to be invited to attend the final as a guest of honour. He was also allowed to display the trophy in the window of his jewellers' shop at 45 South Bridge (now occupied by Costcutters).

By that stage his business was flourishing. The following year, 1907, his journey from fan to club denizen was formalised when he was invited on to the board, and was able to tackle head-on the club's finances, which were still, according to the Evening News, "being run from a tin box in the boardroom."

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One of Furst's most important interventions as a director was to convince his fellow board members to appoint and then offer a free hand to John McCartney as manager in 1910. McCartney had established his reputation by transforming the fortunes of St Mirren.

More than an astute administrator, Furst was also a moderniser. At a time when many teams were still run, generally unsuccessfully, by committees that eschewed the need for a professional manager, Furst persuaded his fellow board members to step back and let McCartney take control of team matters.

Hugely ambitious, McCartney was determined to build a championship-winning side outside the Old Firm, and saw Hearts as a likely vehicle to fulfil that ambition. The two men established a firm friendship. Like Furst, McCartney was an erudite man, who shared the former's interest in literature - both were scholars of Robert Burns. Curiously, McCartney was fond of quoting Dostoevsky in his press briefings.

In 1912, Furst's growing influence was reflected in his appointment, at the age of just 39, as chairman of Hearts. That same year he initiated the club's first overseas tour - to Scandinavia, which proved a big, and profitable, success. Another key achievement of Furst's was helping to steer the expansion and improvement of Tynecastle. He was, says David Speed, "the driving force behind the main stand in 1914", built by the ubiquitous stadium architect Archibald Leitch. However, due to the outbreak of the First World War and the concomitant wartime inflation, the eventual cost of that project soared to 12,000 and could easily have left the club once more on the verge of financial ruin. It was then that Furst demonstrated the full extent of his administrative and financial acumen, guiding the club through its trickiest years. He also proved a formidable negotiator when it came to defending Hearts' interests. For example, says club historian David Speed, he helped to retrieve the club's debts, at one point threatening to bring Chelsea to their knees over an unpaid 1,000 owing for the transfer of a player, Lawrence Abrams. After the war he was one of the principal movers behind the Heart of Midlothian War Memorial erected at Haymarket in 1922.

Furst's remarkable rise to the apex of the Scottish football establishment was completed in 1930, when he became the first Hearts official to be elected as chairman of the Scottish Football League.

Furst resigned from the board suddenly in March 1935. Just a month earlier, his popularity had been vindicated when the board was scaled down from nine members to five, and Furst was returned to office with the most votes. However he had been replaced as chairman by Alex Irvine, and the indication was his views were no longer being heeded. More specifically, two months earlier, he had been overruled on the sale of the club's star player, Tommy Walker, then the hottest property in Scottish football, who had been subject of a world record breaking 12,000 offer from the 'Bank of England' club, Arsenal. Furst, doubtless aware that the sale would be unpopular, pushed for it to be accepted for the sake of the club's financial well-being, but was outvoted by directors who perhaps feared a backlash from the fans. Walker would eventually be sold a decade later for half that amount to Chelsea.

Jack Alexander believes that for all his success at the helm, Furst never quite managed to throw off his outsider status in the eyes of some of his fellow directors. "There was almost certainly an element of resentment. Suddenly this young Jewish kid comes along, so much more astute and with so much more drive, than those around him. And that resentment was still evident in 1935."

Furst remained a Hearts shareholder, and continued to make his voice heard from the 'backbenches'. In 1939 he was to be heard urging caution when the debate over relocating the club to a new stadium at Sighthill resurfaced. Furst urged that the club also look seriously at the alternative of redeveloping the existing stadium at Tynecastle.

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He survived just long enough to see Walker return to Tynecastle as manager in 1949. Having long been plagued by heart problems, suffering several minor strokes, he died of a heart attack in 1949, in the family home in Thirlestane Road, Marchmont. He spent 33 of his 76 years serving Hearts, making a massive contribution to the club's well-being.

The Furst name remains on the club's shareholder's register to this day - in the person of Elias' grandson, Stephen Furst QC, a London barrister - who in fact served his legal apprenticeship under his great uncle, Isaac, once himself lawyer to Hearts. According to Stephen's sister, Susan Strachan, it is just a token holding, kept for sentimental reasons.

Despite his success as a businessman, Elias Furst by all accounts placed little value on material wealth. "He was, I think, a simple man," says Susan. "My mother was always rather scathing about how plainly they lived in fact."

Susan was only a small child when her grandfather died and barely remembers him, but is able to offer one further revealing insight - one that would perhaps please that other man of letters, Vladimir Romanov.

"I do remember my mother saying that [Elias] really loved Shakespeare," says Susan, who now lives in Dalkeith. "I loved reciting poetry and my mother always said I got it from him. Apparently he would always be reciting the Bard. I still have a book of his in which he wrote various quotes from Shakespeare."

Hearts fans will hope that the parallels between their Russian-born benefactors, past and present, extend well beyond a literary bent, and that the current Tynecastle incumbent opts to bide as long as the first. Elias Henry Furst, presumably, watches on with concerned interest.