Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Hearts: Romanov Strikes Again

It seems we're running out of ways to describe Vladimir Romanov's unpredictability.

Apparently from nowhere came the news that Jim Jefferies was to be relieved of his position as manager. Shock, gnashing of teeth and frank changes of opinion followed.

Jefferies' assistant Billy Brown was sacked. Jefferies himself was offered a position as director of football and is said to be considering his next move.

"Nasty foreign owner treats club legend and all round Scottish fitba' gentleman with a continental disdain."

Or, "struggling manager pays the price of a poverty of ideas in a poor sequence of results."

As in life, so in football - these things are rarely rendered in such contrasting black and white.

One win in 14 games through the end of last season and the opening fixtures of this campaign aren't the kind of statistics likely to appeal to Romanov.

Given that I'd had a good five or six discussions about that very record between the end of Sunday's loss to Dundee United and Twitter breaking the news of yesterday's departures it should have been less of a shock.

And the textbook nature of the change - the quick, cool act of regicide and the new king across the water, in the shape of Paulo Sergio, ready to take over - suggests this had been brewing.

Clearly Mr Romanov hadn't flown in for Sunday's game just to see how Dundee United would cope in the post-Goodwillie era.

Has he made the right decision?

Jim Jefferies, club legend and the bulwark of stability that Romanov's Hearts seem to have lacked, had taken his team to third place. In February there was talk of a sustained challenge to the Old Firm.

That challenge fell away and results tailed off as an apparent over reliance on the creaking joints of Kevin Kyle was exposed.

But with that third place came the promise of European football. Jefferies appeared to have weathered the storm of some interference from his owner in team selection at the end of last season.

An uneasy alliance it might have been, an almost stereotypical product of Scottish football steeped in its traditions and eccentricities and the self-made outsider who sees subterfuge and enemies in every corner, but Jim Jefferies looked like he could prosper.

He was given the freedom to strike early in the transfer window and the players brought in seemed more likely to be targets identified by the manager than Romanov's own, at times idiosyncratic, scouting system.

Pre-season went well. The Craig Thomson furore was mishandled in Lithuania but soundly enough negotiated by the manager. Pundits fell over themselves (this blog included) to declare Hearts the only real contenders as the best of the rest.

A draw at Ibrox in the SPL's curtain raiser and a sound 1-1 away draw against Paksi in Europe seemed a confident enough start. But somewhere along the line Romanov's frustration and concerns had bubbled over.

Experience tells us that when that happens a very public parting of the ways is inevitable.

Jefferies, the stoic, grumpy survivor hewn from Scottish footballing granite, will offer the prevalent narrative its victim. Romanov, whose Eastern European villainy seems to predate the end of the Cold War, its James Bond baddie. Mad, Vlad and dangerous to work for.

How Jefferies and Brown would have fared this season will forever be open to conjecture.

My own view is that stability would have helped Hearts more than another step into the unknown. But perhaps this time Romanov's timing has some justification.

The new manager will have the benefit of Jefferies' pre-season preparation and his recruitment of a group of players who look well equipped for the rigours of an SPL season. And, if Romanov gets his way, Jefferies will remain involved.

The new manager inherits that legacy and a European platform to build on.

In Paulo Sergio, a peripatetic coach in Portugal over the last decade or so, Romanov has an employee who might more gladly embrace the Tynecastle way of doing things.

Short tenures at a series of Portuguese clubs will have given him experience in the necessity of making an immediate impact, of adapting to different club environments and adopting a malleability that would have stuck in Jefferies' craw.

He last worked for Sporting, a club whose turnover of coaches in the last decade almost rivals that of Hearts (managerial carousels seem an Edinburgh failing at the moment).

Suggestions of a link with Romanov through a trusted agent also point to a coach who will know what to expect and be prepared to hit the ground running.

Romanov's unpredictability enthrals us and decisions like this seem to play up to the caricature he has created since arriving in Scotland.

That yesterday's events also throw up a wronged and respected Scottish manager being replaced by a foreign hired hand allows us to indulge our distrust of change and perhaps even our continued - misplaced - footballing xenophobia.

But what if, for once, we take Romanov at face value? What if Jefferies' usefulness in the front-line has been expended and in Sergio he has found the "new direction" the club needs?

That reading of events would allow us to agree that Jefferies has been treated shabbily - behaviour that is hardly unique in Scottish football - but that he's also the victim of a decision made in the best interests of the club.

It remains a gamble - and one suspects Romanov's known both the joy and the despair of a roll of the dice - and only time and results will offer conclusive proof of the wisdom of the change. But sometimes strange, oddly timed decisions can work.

Even for this observer, planted on the other side of the Edinburgh tracks, it will be compelling to watch. Whatever else we think about Romanov and his modus operandi it's hard to argue that he adds drama and an unpredictable gaiety to this little footballing nation.