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Another one bites the dust

HE had been suspiciously quiet for some time.

Sacking Jim Jefferies and Billy Brown was always going to cause something of a furore, but to do so three games into a new season, and just three days before the second leg of a European tie, made the announcement even more dramatic.

And yet, while there was initial surprise at the news, nobody was particularly shocked. For if there has been one prominent strand throughout Romanov’s six-year involvement with Hearts, it is his bloody-mindedness to do as he sees fit without being greatly troubled by what consequences may arise as a result.

That first became apparent when George Burley departed with Hearts top of the table in 2005, while Burley’s successors have all operated, to varying degrees of success, with the constant implication that all was not well behind the scenes.

Whether it was Romanov’s reported meddling in team matters, or players not being paid on time, the name of Hearts under the stewardship of the Russian-born Lithuanian and his coterie of like-minded colleagues soon became a byword for scandal.

The appointment of Jefferies and Brown in January of last year, following the removal of the mercurial Csaba Laszlo, appeared to represent a change of direction for Hearts under Romanov.

Here was the homecoming of an esteemed former player and Scottish Cup-winning manager, someone greatly respected by his peers, and experienced and sufficiently strong-willed to deal with the ongoing turmoil at Tynecastle. It was a surprise choice as Jefferies did not fit the Romanov template: outsiders or those with whom he had dealt with previously.

And for a while it worked. Romanov seemed to back off, preferring to focus on his other interests back home, and Hearts enjoyed a period of relative tranquillity. After a seventh-placed finish at the end of his first half-season in charge, Jefferies led Hearts to third place last season, and back into Europe.

There were wins over Rangers and Celtic as Hearts sparked a debate over whether the championship was now a three-horse race, before a late-season stumble saw their challenge fade away.

And yet, it is this poor run of results, continuing over two difficult SPL matches at the start of this season, that has eventually cost the manager his job. Romanov reportedly told his startled players yesterday that the team needed to be freshened up and that it would be prudent to pursue a change of direction. A new coaching team is expected to be unveiled today.

Some Hearts supporters have applauded Romanov’s ruthlessness, with Jefferies’ playing style and lack of focus on youth development both coming in for criticism. The statistics also make fairly grim reading, with no win in 11 matches dating back to March.

But such facts can also be misleading. While they eventually finished only two points ahead of Dundee United, the real work had been put in over the autumn and winter. Complacency was their only real weakness in the closing weeks after it became apparent that they could not break into the top two and were not really being pushed for third by the chasing pack.

Jefferies’ side drew their opening league match this season away to Rangers -- emerging from Ibrox with great credit -- then secured a 1-1 Europa League draw away to PAKS of Hungary last week. Sunday’s defeat at home to Dundee United was the first low point of the new season although, by many accounts, they did not play poorly despite the result.

If that loss was not the sole reason for the management team’s removal -- and with Romanov you could never rule it out -- then it seems peculiar to wait until the season has begun before making such an unsettling change.

Spare a thought, too, for Jamie Hamill, Mehdi Taouil, Danny Grainger and John Sutton, all brought to Tynecastle over the summer with a view to working with Jefferies and Brown -- Hamill and Taouil had played under them at Kilmarnock -- only to find within nine days of the season starting that they will be working for a new manager.

You would have had more joy getting blood out of a stone than information out of Hearts yesterday, once it became apparent things were stirring at Tynecastle, although there was an irony about the top stories on the Hearts official website in lieu of any breaking news.

‘JJ: We deserved more’.

‘JJ: We got punished’.

Another was simply titled: ‘Patience is key’. It seems Romanov’s had again run out. A return to more turbulent times at Tynecastle now seems inevitable.

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