Some noticed it during Hearts’ Betfred Cup match against Dunfermline two weeks ago. For a…
Hearts were for real. Ten games into the 2005-06 Scottish Premier League season, the Tynecastle side were undefeated, winning eight and drawing just two. By mid-October, they were considered genuine title challengers. Then the man who had turned them into such was dismissed. George Burley was sacked with Hearts top of the league and on course to become champions.
It’s perhaps the biggest ‘what if’ tale in modern Scottish football history. Gordon Strachan had only just taken charge at Celtic, with the early stages of his tenure tainted by the infamous 5-0 thumping at Artmedia Bratislava. Meanwhile, Rangers were lacking direction ahead of the ill-fated Paul le Guen era. It was there for Hearts to take and they messed it up.
More accurately, Vladimir Romanov messed it up. The Russian-born Lithuanian citizen’s millions might have got them there in the first place, but without his madcap intervention, sacking Burley as part of a power grab just one day after raising his private stake in Hearts, allowing him the freedom to run the club as a personal fiefdom, they might have gone all the way.
So what might have happened had Hearts kept Burley? What if Romanov just for one full season hadn’t been so Romanov? How would the landscape of Scottish football have changed had the Jam Tarts gone all the way, becoming the first side outside the Celtic-Rangers duopoly to win the league in Scotland since Sir Alex Ferguson’s great Aberdeen team of the 1980s?
In all likelihood, it wouldn’t have changed much. Celtic and Rangers probably would have regained their grip of the Scottish game soon enough. All things considered, Hearts would have been Scotland’s Leicester City, or maybe even its Portsmouth given how Romanov’s spending ultimately turned out to be unsustainable.
What’s more, Hearts were only 10 games into the 2005-06 season. They had thumped Hibs, seen off Aberdeen, beaten Rangers and picked up a point away to Celtic, putting them three points clear at the top of the Scottish Premier League at the time of Burley’s sacking. Their early season credentials were proven, but that’s all they were, with just over a quarter of the campaign played.
But there will always be the hypothetical discussion of what might have been. While he was without doubt a preposterous and infuriating figure who ultimately did serious damage to the club, plunging them into the depths of administration, Romanov gave Hearts a platform. With a semblance of sound thought, the Lithuanian could have turned the Jam Tarts into Scottish football’s third force.
Of course, the story of Burley’s sacking became the defining story of the 2005-06 season for Hearts. It sparked a war of words between the former Ipswich and Derby County manager and Romanov, with the matter of severance compensation settled through the courts. The Lithuanian didn’t mince his words in his elaboration of what happened, such was his manner.
“I don’t know why people think he was the great coach,” Romanov argued in an interview years later. “Look especially at when he was promoted to the Scottish national team, that was one of Scottish football’s biggest farces. His influence on the team was something that was not in our interests. He took [Rudi] Skacel away from the club, remember.’
Romanov, in light of Burley’s exit, said he expected Hearts to win the SPL title anyway, and then triumph in the Champions League soon after that. He promised that a “top class manager” would be hired as a replacement, with Claudio Ranieri, Kevin Keegan, Bobby Robson and Ottmar Hitzfeld mentioned. Instead, Graham Rix – a convicted sex offender whose last coaching stint had ended in a hasty sacking at Portsmouth three years earlier – was appointed.
Rix was little more than a puppet. Romanov’s interference in first team matters was obvious, with the Hearts side even told to wait in the dressing room after games for the Lithuanian to deliver a team talk. It didn’t take long for senior players like Steven Pressley, Craig Gordon and Paul Hartley to rise up, with a rebellion led by the “Riccarton Three”, as they were dubbed, culminating in an impromptu press conference at the club’s training ground, expressing their opposition to Romamov’s stewardship.
The surreality of the occasion reflected the tone of an era at Hearts. Rix only lasted five months, replaced by Valdas Ivanauskas in March. Various senior boardroom figures left the club as Romanov turned the Tynecastle outfit into a basket case, going through five managers in the space of just three years. That became the Lithuanian’s calling card during his time in Scotland, and had it not been for the way he left Hearts, teetering on the brink of extinction, his chaos carrying a twisted sort of charm. A footballing Boris Johnson, of sorts.
There are too many Romanov moments of madness to mention in a single article. For a spell, he was a giant of the Scottish game, an unavoidable force of farce and folly. His name is still uttered from time to time, such was the length of the shadow he left. But for all the tales, one stands out above all else – the time he sacked a manager who’d taken Hearts to the top of the league.