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Aug 3, 2011

North of the Border

The crazy goings-on at Hearts take centre stage in the latest edition of North of the Border.

Vlad the impaler

Vladimir Romanov is the most bloodthirsty ruler in the history of Scottish football. The pile of his managerial victims outside Tynecastle should lessen the shock value of each of his executions, but this week he upped the gore quotient again with the sacking of Jim Jefferies, the ninth manager of Hearts since Romanov took power less than seven years ago.

Jefferies' appointment, in the middle of the 2009-10 season, appeared to signal the arrival of a new era of common sense at Tynecastle. A former captain of the club, he had also managed them, in an entirely different era, to victory in the Scottish Cup final, in 1998. He was experienced, deeply connected to the club and had an air of authority - it seemed Romanov would trust him to run the club with a level of autonomy denied his predecessors.

Instead, he left Tynecastle in a hurry on Monday afternoon after a hastily-arranged team meeting to announce his departure. By the way, like any serial killer worth his salt, Romanov has established an easily-identifiable modus operandi. Visit Edinburgh, take in a game over the weekend, sack manager, regardless of achievement, on Monday.

Perhaps he is constantly seeking the adrenaline high he achieved with his masterpiece, the sacking of George Burley when the Hearts team he had assembled during a single close season was top of the SPL and undefeated. By comparison, Jefferies' departure is tame.

Last season his team cruised to a third-place finish in the SPL, even if they took their foot off the gas in the home stretch. Over the summer, Jefferies bulked up his squad with a few sure things from his competitors. He had some big players coming back from injury and only one significant departure, the Scotland left-back Lee Wallace. His team were in the middle of a two-legged Europa League qualifier, having drawn with Paksi of Budapest 1-1. They started the SPL season with a deserved draw at the home of the champions, Rangers, and then lost a close one at home against Dundee United, who finished one place behind them last season. There was no reason to think Hearts would not strengthen their position as the nearest challengers to the Old Firm this season and they are a good bet to progress to the play-off round of the Europa League.

It is easy to find a punchline in Hearts' story, but the truth is it is a sad, sad tale. Under Romanov, they have had the strength and, at times, the talent to challenge the Old Firm's quarter-century dominance of the Scottish championship. The chance for them to do so has been squandered by the impulses of their owner and there is nothing funny about that.

From rags to riches (to rags to riches)

The early rounds of the two cup competitions that provide early-season indicators of who may emerge from the promotion dogfights in the Scottish Football League have brought the odds of Livingston completing a remarkable rise back to the SPL crashing down.

Livingston's brief history has included all the aspects of a footballing fairytale, if not necessarily in the correct order. They went from the Third Division to third-place in the SPL in seven seasons, but, in 2009, were demoted back to the bottom tier after being placed into administration and being found guilty of breaking SFL rules. Since then they have blasted their way to successive championship wins, mauling opponents and finishing the job while the daffodils were still in bloom.

While the First Division was expected to absorb their cannonball-like momentum, Livingston have started the season in destructive fashion. In the Challenge Cup, open to the 30 teams in the Scottish Football League, they won 5-0 at Airdrie United. Then, last weekend, they took apart Arbroath in a 6-0 victory in the League Cup.

In 2004, that same competition gave the club its happy ending when they beat Hibernian in the Hampden final. A series of wicked stepmothers had their way after that, but if Livingston are in the hunt for a third promotion in as many years come the spring, there won't be enough fairytale clichés to describe this Cinderella story. If the books balance this time, they may even get to live happily ever after.

In a league of his own

Celtic used their place at the Dublin Super Cup, alongside Manchester City, to make a play for Craig Bellamy, available on loan as he has no chance of making the final cut in Roberto Mancini's star-packed squad. He is still a fast and ruthless forward, but with Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli and, for now at least, Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz on City's books, Bellamy's availability is no surprise.

However, the end of this courtship left us wondering about the way such enquiries are handled. Bellamy had been linked with Celtic off and on for weeks before the teams shared a spot at the pre-season tournament in the Republic of Ireland. There, one club talked to the other and we heard that Mancini was happy for Bellamy to talk to Celtic.

Then, after all of that, a story, clearly originating from Bellamy himself, broke in Wales that he wanted to play for Cardiff City, the club he was loaned to last season, and would not consider a move to any other British team. That term was employed specifically to rule out a return to Celtic, for whom he scored seven goals in 12 games during a half-season loan in 2005.

During that time, he was a team-mate of Neil Lennon, now Celtic manager. One phone call between the two should have been enough, surely, for Bellamy to make his preference known. It would be easy to criticise Celtic here, were it not for the fact that they were dealing with a player with an unrivalled ability to test the temper of anyone in the same postcode, with or without the use of a golf club. Perhaps the idea of his working with the equally combustible Lennon was a non-runner from the start.

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