Since we filmed Eduard Malofeev has left the club…

Nine words which appeared in white across a black background at the end of a special 45-minute DVD presentation released “for you, the most important people at our club, the Heart of Midlothian fans”. 

Hearts: The Pre-season Story sought to give an insight into the club’s preparations for the upcoming 2007/08 campaign. A season which would end with the club in its lowest place since returning to the Scottish top flight in 1983. It followed the team in Austria and Germany before finishing with the friendly against Barcelona in front of nearly 58,000 spectators at Murrayfield. While former owner Vladimir Romanov’s impromptu boxing match with striker Roman Bednar was the most notable moment, the DVD provided an illuminating peak behind the curtain at how Eduard Malofeev operated. The Russian coach, who oversaw the least successful managerial stint in the club’s history, had returned.

“Malofeev turned up and it was ‘what the fuck is going on here?’,” former Hearts midfielder Michael Stewart, who signed from Hibs that same summer, told Hearts Standard. “Boys are talking about how this guy is off his rocker. All the same things were happening again. They were like ‘I cannot believe this guy is back again’.”

The documentary showed him barking orders in Russian to a fed-up and disinterested dressing room at half-time of a friendly match, Tino the translator trying to keep up, delivering the English version with the enthusiasm of a disgruntled receptionist at 4.58pm on a Friday. Then Malofeev was on the sidelines, screaming “MICHAEL, MICHAEL” followed by Russian commands, much to the bemusement of Stephen Frail sharing the same technical area. Before long the referee of the friendly match with Austria Vienna had sent him to the stands.

Such snippets provided greater context to what the players had to endure during Malofeev’s ill-fated and infamous six-game interim spell during the 2006/07 season. A six-game spell which may well go down as the most nefarious, shambolic and bonkers in the club’s history.

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As CVs go, for incoming managers at Tynecastle Park, Malofeev held one of the most impressive. He followed a hugely successful playing career in the Soviet Union by becoming one of the most respected coaches of his time, a contemporary and rival of the revered Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi. 

“In a career of notable success, though, that spell stands as an aberration,” Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid, wrote in the Guardian. 

That spell? His time in Gorgie.

Having been brought in as sporting director during the summer of 2006, Valdas Ivanauskas now the permanent head coach, Malofeev would step into the hot seat following a 2-0 loss to Kilmarnock in October 2006. It was a defeat which would result in Ivanauskas taking a break from football on medical grounds. What unfolded over the next 35 days was perhaps the most dysfunctional period during Romanov’s rollercoaster reign which ultimately ended in administration. It was a period shaped by the ‘Riccarton Three’, bizarre line-ups and even more bizarre rants, accusations of discrimination and accusations of players working for Celtic and Rangers, a fourth official being manhandled and protests at Tynecastle Park.

Jamie MacDonald, who was between the first-team and reserve squads at the time, believes it was this period which started the beginning of a long and fractious end to the Romanov ownership. It was “where things really started to go toxic”. 

Who is Eduard Malofeev?

“He was a guy who had achieved a lot,” ESPN commentator Mark Donaldson, who covered Hearts for Forth One at the time, said. “He was a super player. I know he is in his 80s now but he’s released a book and his CV was exceptional.”

As a player he finished top scorer in the Soviet League in 1971 for Dinamo Minsk. A club he scored more than 100 goals for. He was a member of the Soviet Union squad for the European Championships in 1964 and 1968, as well as the 1966 World Cup where he scored three goals. He perhaps became an even more notable figure as a coach. 

“Where Lobanovskyi was taciturn and analytical, his outbursts rooted in his desire to make his players conform to his system, Eduard Malofeev was loquacious and ebullient, frighteningly so,” Wilson wrote in Inverting the Pyramid. He was said to play “football of the heart, not the head”.

He would make his name at Dinamo Minsk, leading them to their only Soviet Top League success in 1982, ahead of Dynamo Kiev and Spartak Moscow. He was in charge of the USSR when they qualified for the 1986 World Cup before being replaced by Lobanovskyi. Malofeev would then hold various coaching rules in eastern Europe, from Dinamo Moscow to Anzhi Makhachkala to the Belarus national team. A journey that would lead to MTZ-RIPO, the Belarussian side in Romanov’s stable, onto FBK Kaunas and ultimately Heart of Midlothian.

As Romanov sought more control over the footballing department following a second-place finish and Scottish Cup win in 2006, Malofeev was brought in above Ivanauskas. Despite a strong start to the season, beating Celtic 2-0 at Tynecastle Park to suggest another title challenge, it quickly unravelled, culminating in the aforementioned loss to Kilmarnock.

“This was off the back of a Scottish Cup win,” Charlie Mann, who acted as Romanov’s spokesperson, told Hearts Standard. “Valdas was obviously under a lot of pressure. That was a big thing. There was a lot of pressure to maintain that success and Valdas did feel that pressure and went on that break. Romanov was very loyal to Valdas. It was always seen as someone coming in to steer the ship while Valdas recuperated. 

“Wherever his advisors were coming from and getting people placed in front of him, he did do the homework. He was very respectful of reputations. Malofeev obviously did have a strong reputation. Like the majority of things around that time, it was whether or not that would work in the Scottish game. There were many, many, many decisions taken that might have worked in Russia or the Eastern Bloc but wouldn’t or didn’t work in Scotland. That’s where things fell down.”

MacDonald remembered a lot of “fanfare” from Romanov that Malofeev was brought in. For Donaldson and others in the media “it was a total shrug of the shoulders”.

He said: “There was normalised chaos at Tynecastle back then. It was a time of continued weirdness.”

Malofeev had not yet taken charge of a game when the club once again became headline news in Scotland and beyond. As the Russian coach watched from upstairs at what is now the Oriam, the club’s three most prominent individuals, Steven Pressley, Craig Gordon and Paul Hartley addressed the media on the eve of a home clash with Dunfermline Athletic, earning the moniker ‘The Riccarton Three'. The squad had been warned by Romanov they would be sold to “Kilmarnock or whatever club will take them” if they didn’t beat the Pars.

Only Pressley spoke, noting “significant unrest in the dressing room” while highlighting “an impossible task”.

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Remarkably, starting six defenders at home to the Fifers didn’t work. Lee Wallace and Robbie Neilson played as wing-backs, while Ibrahim Tall played in midfield. A one-dimensional and direct performance followed as the game finished 1-1. 

"There are different tastes and different opinions," Malofeev said of his tactical approach. "But sometimes it takes quite a long time to get to know each other. If we are going to do high and long passes then it will be with the aim to score more goals. My opinion is it is better to win with a score of 10-9 than 1-0."

That was in response to the written press. His interview with Setanta Sports, however, has gone down in infamy. He was asked if the players were fully concentrated following the events at Riccarton 24 hours previous. Once the message had been relaid to him by Janet Smirnova, his eyes widened and he became incredulous. Gesturing and shouting. He claimed there were no problems at the club. “It’s a democracy at the club,” he said. “We can say whatever we want when we want. We are free people and it is freedom of the words.” He was gesturing so much the camera had to zoom out.

In dealings with the press, such an approach wasn’t uncommon.

“You couldn’t (deal with him),” Donaldson said. “You had to go through the PR department, they had to go through the translator. It was so clandestine, you had no idea what was going on. He would sit at the table when doing his press conferences and just rant. The question would be posed, it would be translated, she would get it back and more often than not you would get a summation of a rant. The summation lasted a tenth of the time it took for the rant. So goodness knows what was being said.”

Nor was it uncommon in the dressing room.

“He didn’t speak a jot of English, he was barking orders in Russian,” MacDonald told Hearts Standard. “Everything was getting done through an interpreter. You weren’t sure if it was getting lost in translation or the interpreter was just picking and choosing what he wanted to say because I felt a lot of the time he was speaking a lot more than what was being said through the interpreter.

“He didn’t speak. It was always a bark. If you see old films and Soviet leaders barking orders at their soldiers, he was very much true to form. Probably the way he did bark, it doesn’t always go down well with players. There was almost an anger in it as if you were getting in trouble from a school teacher. It sounded like he was berating you.”

A far cry from a head coach who was renowned for “his ability to handle players and get the best out of them”, according to Wilson, and his eccentric but motivational team talks, including one ahead of the 1982 Soviet Top League title decider where he spoke of monkeys, lions and sacrifice.

Mann offered to provide context and perhaps an understanding of his approach in Scotland.

“There were many press conferences where there were a lot of demonstrative responses to answers,” he said. “But a lot of that was just his style. It was bizarre. It was just the difference in cultures. That was the biggest problem of the whole thing. 

“We were in Dalmahoy one time and I was told there was a huge row which involved Malofeev, Vlad and some of his advisors. What was the norm in Russia was there was a lot of shouting involved in general conversations. People were loud. People thought it was one of these absolute storming rows when probably what was going on was an exchange of views about tactics, signings or how well or not the club was doing under Malofeev’s reign.”

The best performance under Malofeev arrived at Celtic Park, even if Pressley was absent with the ‘flu’. Hearts went to the Scottish champions with an attacking set-up which included Paul Hartley, Bruno Aguiar, Deividas Cesnauskis, Saulius Mikoliunas and Andrius Velicka. The latter opened the scoring and the visitors led until the final four minutes of the match.

However, they would lose 2-1.

"I looked at Bruno and thought he was tired and it was time to make a change,” Malofeev admitted after the match. “But, after the way things went, I should not have taken him off."

On the grand scale of decisions, it wasn’t particularly egregious. That would arrive just four days later in a League Cup clash with Hibs…

Part 2 of Eduard Malofeev's infamous interim spell at Hearts will be published later this week on Hearts Standard.