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Nov 2, 2005

Hearts of Darkness

Shortly before 3'o clock on Saturday afternoon, when Hearts meet Dundee United, George Foulkes will arrive at Tynecastle. Only on this occasion, the former MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley will swap his old position in the directors' box for his season ticket in the Wheatfield Stand - and gladly.

Foulkes and Phil Anderton, the club chairman and chief executive until Monday, are the latest pieces of collateral damage to emerge from an increasingly bloody battle being waged by Hearts' multimillionaire Lithuanian owner, Vladimir Romanov. Little would anyone think, we're dealing with a team that was sitting on top of the SPL with an unbeaten record until just a few days ago.

The bloodletting started with the mysterious departure of manager George Burley just hours before the recent home game with Dunfermline. Burley had received rave reviews from players, fans and media alike. We presumed he had been sacked (his dislike of Romanov's overtly hands-on style was well known) but confidentiality agreements prevented the full story coming out.

Ironically, Foulkes was the man charged with announcing and spinning the Burley news. A week later, after several candidates for the vacancy, including Sir Bobby Robson and Claudio Ranieri, had been interviewed, Romanov suddenly decided he wanted rid of Anderton.

For three days, Foulkes, previously a Romanov loyalist in public, vigorously opposed the ditching of the chief executive. Finally, when it was clear the Lithuanian wasn't budging on Halloween, Foulkes did the honourable thing and resigned in protest.

Now we have nepotism at its very best in the Hearts power structure. The new chairman and acting chief executive is none other than Roman Romanov, son of the majority shareholder.

When asked why Anderton was dismissed, the younger Romanov mumbled something about some boxes having been ticked, and others not. 'To get to the next level,' he said, 'we needed to act.'

Quite what he's talking about makes little sense. These are turbulent times of the Romanovs' own making. By any measure, Anderton had performed competently in the job, doubling the number of season holders, as well as doing likewise for income from merchandising.

Foulkes made just one bad mistake. By staying on and defending the club's actions with regard to Burley, and dispelling the notion that Vladimir Romanov wanted influence over team selection, he made himself look, from the outside at least, like a puppet.

Still, Foulkes, whose role as a bridge to the supporters, is likely to be forgiven, now that he has honestly and forcefully let them know where he stands. Some might argue he ought to have stayed on and fought from the inside, but his keen political instincts told him he was working for a dictatorship, and a ruthless one at that.

We now wait with baited breath to hear George Burley's version of events. He might as well open up. The gloves are as good as off.

Where do Hearts go from here? First of all, they need a manager. Yet what prominent coach in his right mind would touch the job with a barge pole, given that the man who wields the power seems unwilling to devolve any of it.

Can you really imagine Sir Bobby Robson being willing to take advice from the Romanovs about the merits of 4-3-3? Not on your life.

Incidentally, for those who believe this is simply the continental way of doing things, think again. It's one thing to have a powerful general manager or sporting director in charge of transfers, such as at Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. It's another matter entirely, when the owner wants to be general manager, technical director and coach, all rolled into one - while living in Vilnius.

Those of you who watch ESPNSoccernet Press Pass might accuse me of being a turncoat. Last week, on air, I was willing to give Romanov the benefit of the doubt. Much of that faith had to do with the fact that Foulkes, a man I have the utmost respect for, was still toeing and preaching the party line. Hearts fans were still solidly behind Romanov - until this week.

Now, the truth is out, and it has confirmed the worst fears of those who smelled a rat.

Hearts have lit up the SPL with the quality of their football, but the warning signs were there on Saturday in the 2-0 defeat by city rivals Hibernian. All of a sudden, Celtic have caught them.

One wonders if, with such instability at the core of the club, a league title is really a possibility.

Less than a fortnight ago, the Romanov revolution at Tynecastle appeared to be a dream come true for Hearts supporters. Now they rightly don't know what to think or which way to turn.

Much as former Hearts supremo Chris Robinson was about as unpopular as Margaret Thatcher amongst the ranks of the Gorgie faithful, his words have a prescient quality when examined today.

'Be careful what you wish for.' Indeed.

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