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Romanov dynasty in decay

The Romanov rollercoaster at Heart of Midlothian is on a downward slope so steep that the G-Force is threatening to derail the entire enterprise.

Second-placed Hearts have began to toil on the pitch, having crashed to a shock 2-0 defeat to Kilmarnock and a 1-1 draw with relegation-bound Dunfermline both at Tynecastle - a fortress last season, so the off field happenings have proved even more alarming for fans.

After defeat to Kilmarnock, manager Ivan Ivanauskas stormed off, refusing to face the press for the traditional post-match denouement. It was soon revealed that he was to take a two-week break, back in his native Lithuania, to recover from undisclosed health problems, leading to widespread speculation that he could be the next in a line of managers to depart the club in controversial circumstances under the Romanov regime.

Eduard Malofeev, a member of the Hearts backroom staff who has previously managed the USSR, is to stand in as interim manager, despite his lack of English and coaching badges.

For most clubs this alone would have caused enough disruption, but in a twist to the Romanov soap opera that even the writers of 'The Bold and the Beautiful' would have deemed too schlocky and unbelievable, the Lithuania-based Russian arrived at the Jambos' training pitches on Friday to warn his squad that if they failed to win Saturday's match against lowly Dunfermline, then the entire team would be sold to provincial Scottish sides 'or whatever club will take them.'

After this astounding announcement the background turmoil at the club finally spilled from the tabloid backpages and out into the broader arena through one of the most unexpected channels.

Club captain Stephen Pressley - the one constant Hearts fans have looked to at the club during the ongoing shenanigans, providing a dignified touchstone amid the chaos, launched a pre-planned press conference.

Flanked by Hearts and Scotland team-mates Craig Gordon and Paul Hartley - the three players deemed the influential native backbone of the team, Pressley gave an emotional address to the gathered press about the continuing instability at the club, saying: 'While publicly I have expressed the need for unity, behind the scenes I have made my concerns abundantly clear.

'The last two years have been very testing for the players and together we have faced a number of challenges. I have worked hard to maintain some degree of unity, however, due to the circumstances morale is understandably not good. There is significant unrest within the dressing room.'

Following Hearts' failure to beat Dunfermline the players have yet to be transfer listed, and it seems that this would be a step too far even for Romanov, who has yet to prove as ruthless with players as he has with managers.

However the atmosphere at the Edinburgh club has been poisoned by recent events, and with a visit to league leaders Celtic this Saturday and a CIS Cup tie against arch-rivals Hibs following in midweek, it is hardly the best time for uncertainty and confusion.

It is widely speculated that Ivanauskas is unlikely to return, and those players who have taken a stand against Romanov's overt interference in team affairs have to wonder whether their words will be heeded, or whether they be the next to suffer from an autocratic owner who seems loathe to take advice, far less be questioned.

The long-term ambitions of the club, to prize the SPL title away from the Glasgow-based Old Firm and secure consistent Champions League football, must now be in doubt. The club is surely unlikely to attract top players and coaches whilst there is so much uncertainty about how the team is being run.

Other events that would be traumatic to fans of other clubs, but for loyal Hearts supporters seem almost like business as usual since Romanov took control in early 2005, have also rumbled on in the background.

Former club chairman Lord George Foulkes added fuel to the fire surrounding Ivanauskas's mysterious break by highlighting that previous manager George Burley was 'offered' a similar two-week sabbatical and refused on the grounds that his health was fine, shortly before he was surprisingly relieved of his duties last season, despite being unbeaten in the Scottish Premier League at the time.

Hearts' increasingly opaque finances were also brought into question with the launch of a FIFA investigation into the transfer of Mirsad Beslija from Racing Genk in Belgium last January.

Genk have accused Hearts of failing to pay 80 per cent of the agreed £835,000 transfer fee for the Bosnian international winger, and have demanded that FIFA take appropriate action, which could mean a ban from the transfer market and exclusion from the European competition that Hearts flopped in at the beginning of this season.

A FIFA spokesman has confirmed an investigation is taking place, believed to centre around an allegation by Hearts that middlemen completed the transfer without their permission and they now wish to renegotiate.

Racing Genk director Erik Gerits has said: 'What we are hearing from Hearts is that the player isn't worth the money and that the people who completed the transfer didn't have permission to do it.'

In a separate dispute, the Scottish Football Association fined Hearts £10,000 for outspoken comments Romanov made regarding perceived referee bias last year.

Romanov has met with fans groups this week and addressed widespread concerns about his well-publicised meddling in the team. Reports are that he did little to calm fans' fears, but indeed confirmed what had long been speculated, and made clear that he was no longer interested in big-name signings, but wished to blood young players coming through the academy. Whilst a noble aim, many fans have expressed doubt that they will be able to compete in the short-term by deploying such a strategy.

Romanov also detailed plans for an expansion of Tynecastle stadium to a 40,000 capacity that met with a mixed reaction from fans.

The current stadium holds less than 18,000 and is hugely popular in Scotland for its steep stands and capacity crowds that create a cacophony of noise.

Whilst fans recognise the need and desire for the club to expand, the suggested capacity of 40,000 is much higher than many had expected, and has brought fears that they will struggle to fill it, even when the going is good, and could be left with a minority of hardcore fans rattling around a sarcophagus should the clubs fortunes ever change for the worse.

Memories of disappointing European matches at the huge Scottish national rugby stadium - where Hearts are forced to play their continental ties due to pitch restrictions - involving flat atmospheres and hoards of empty seats, even with over 30,000 in attendance, has provoked consternation amongst the more cautious fans.

Despite the turmoil, Hearts still sit in second place in the SPL, which would qualify them for the Champions League should they remain there at the end of the season.

However Celtic have already pulled ten points clear at the top of the division, and stuttering Rangers are still nipping at Hearts heels, just two points behind.

Hearts' 2005/6 season saw them split the Old Firm for the first time in a decade and their winning of the Scottish Cup brought a breath of fresher air to the long stagnant Scottish game.

Without a speedy resumption of calm, it seems unlikely that Hearts will be able to continue to shake up the game on the pitch in anything like the fashion they are causing headlines and consternation off the field .

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