Why is it that football clubs so often attract the most incompetent owners? You would have thought, given the high level of interest in clubs and everything they do, on and off the field, that the demands of ownership, and the pressures that go with it, would appeal to only the most public spirited and best qualified individuals.
That’s how it used to be many years ago, when most clubs were also owned by wealthy individuals, but those were men who had a strong philanthropic streak. They didn’t get involved in football to get even richer, but simply because they wanted to be seen to put something back into the area from which their wealth originated, and perhaps enhance their standing in the community in the process.
Stability and continuity were the watchwords in those days with clubs passed on from one generation to the next, with owners recognising their responsibility in taking care of what they readily acknowledged was a community asset.
Oh, how the ownership picture has changed – and to the detriment of the game we love. Whether one looks at clubs at the top of the pyramid, in the Premiership, or at the bottom in the non-league world, football today is littered with examples of how the new generation of owners have heaped crippling debt and reputational damage on their teams as they greedily chase money and supposed glory.
Which brings me to Heart of Midlothian Football Club in Scotland’s Premier Division. A club with a long and glorious history, today its reputation lies in tatters because of the rank irresponsibility and gross misjudgement of its owner, Lithuanian businessman, Vladimir Romanov, and his fellow directors and advisers, including his son, Roman, his niece Julija Goncaruk, and Fedotovas and Vitalijus Vasiliauskas.
Romanov’s tenure at Hearts has been marked by controversy but the events of the last few days are remarkable by even his bizarre standards. Fans and community leaders throughout Scotland and beyond have been left shaking their heads in disbelief and wishing the club was still owned by one of the philanthropic owners of yesteryear.
The issue that has brought Hearts to its knees is Vladimir Romanov’s refusal to sack Craig Thomson, a promising young player, after Thomson, 20, was found guilty of sex offences against two 12 year-old girls. The defender was fined and placed on the sex offenders register for five years for what the judge described as his “lewd, libidinous and indecent behaviour”.
Public opinion was outraged that Thomson was retained after Hearts issued a statement in support of the player. This was followed by a comment on Facebook from Sergejus Fedotovas, a non-executive director, providing yet another example of the bizarre ethical code at work in the Tynecastle boardroom. “Believe me, I understand all concerns, but yet again I want to stress if there would be a real danger we would take a different decision,” Fedotovas said. “If we consider ourself a society of a 21st century then people do not get kicked outside the gate and forgotten”. And this from a club that works extensively with kids and prides itself on being family friendly.
Meanwhile, all hell broke loose in the media and throughout society. One of the more measured responses came from the chief executive of the Children 1st charity, Anne Houston. Urging the football club to reconsider, she said: “Allowing convicted sex offenders to continue working where they will have direct and indirect contact with children is wrong.”
The chairman of the Hearts Supporters Trust, Derek Watson, also condemned the club’s decision to retain Thomson. “The majority of fans are very much against keeping Craig Thomson on,” he said.
After several days of severe criticism, Vladimir Romanov eventually bowed to pressure. In the briefest of statements issued at lunchtime on Tuesday, Hearts reversed its earlier decision and announced that Craig Thomson was “suspended with immediate effect. No further comment will be made by the club.”
Does that mean his contract will be cancelled or, when things quieten down, will the way be left open for Thomson to continue his career with Hearts? Well no-one outside the boardroom knows, although given all that’s gone before, the money is on the latter outcome, particularly as the player is believed to be promising and could eventually command a handsome transfer fee.
What’s particularly interesting is what happened to make the usually dogmatic Mr Romanov change tack? Money – or rather the loss of it.
First MacB Water, one of Hearts’ official sponsors withdrew its support. In a statement MacB Water said: “As a company with strong family values, we are left with no choice but to terminate our relationship with Hearts Football Club. Along with countless others, fans and co-sponsors alike, we are extremely disappointed with the club’s handling of this situation and as a result can no longer continue our support.”
This was followed by calls for fans to boycott season tickets sales, merchandise and other income-generating initiatives, including, not surprisingly, summer coaching courses for kids.
If Mr Romanov thinks his gesture in suspending Thomson will satisfy his critics he’d better think again because many observers believe the club has been irreparably damaged by this scandal. Whether Hearts can ever recover, only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: it leaves football lovers everywhere wondering whatever happened to allow the likes of Romanov and his cohorts to take control of so many much-loved institutions throughout the UK.
By Craig Hampton – Southend United fan