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08 Dec 2006 10:23
Is there a man in football with more responsibilities than Stephen Pressley? The Hearts and Scotland stalwart is not only a centre-back and captain (though the latter is currently subject to debate), he is also his club’s shop steward, counsellor, leader of the players’ popular revolutionary front and whistle-blower in chief.
But by the time you read this, he might well have been excised from Hearts’ history.
A few weeks ago, Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov described Pressley, aka Elvis, as the “cement” that stuck the club together.
Today, he is persona non grata.
After eight years Pressley had become the club’s figurehead. He started out at Rangers—a struggling member of the squad that won the treble. He tried his luck in England in 1994 by moving to Coventry, but it was only after he went to Dundee United in 1995 that he made good. In 1998, he moved to Hearts.
Romanov, a Russian-born Lithuanian, took over at Hearts in 2005. But in little more than one season, the former nuclear submariner turned banker, businessman and football club owner has: sacked George Burley when Hearts were top of the league; given Graham Rix the boot after a handful of games; and left Valdas Ivanauskas in need of a month’s “sick leave” after interfering in selection to the extent that 59 team changes were made in his first 11 games.
In late October, with Hearts second in the league, he announced that if Dunfermline were not beaten the next day he would put the whole team up for sale. They drew 1-1 but Romanov did not flog the team, which has since slipped to sixth.
It was after Romanov’s apocalyptic pronouncement that Elvis made an astonishing statement to the press, flanked by his teammates and fellow internationals, Craig Gordon and Paul Hartley.
Firmly and slowly—Elvis is known for his slow talking—he read: “I have tried, along with the coaching staff and certain colleagues, to implement the correct values and disciplines, but it has become an impossible task. There is only so much a coaching staff, a captain and certain colleagues can do without the full backing, direction and coherence of the manager and those running the football club.
“While, publicly, I have expressed the need for unity, behind the scenes I have made my concerns abundantly clear. The last two years have been very testing for the players ... morale, understandably, is not good and there is significant unrest in the dressing room.”
He finally looked up from his sheet. “Thanks chaps,” he said. Silence. None of the journalists had heard anything like this from a footballer—nothing as eloquent or bold or honest.
Sure, we have had dribblings from Gary Neville about the unfairness of Rio Ferdinand’s ban after he missed a drugs test, and history is littered with admirable stands against racism, from sport’s boycott of South Africa to footballer Lilian Thuram condemning France’s interior minister and inviting 80 homeless immigrants who were expelled from their squat by Nicolas Sarkozy to a match between France and Italy.
But I cannot remember a sportsman putting himself on the line like Elvis did. Yes, one can argue that he knew his days at Hearts were numbered. One can even argue, as Charlie Nicholas has, that he should have spoken up earlier. But to do so would be unfair. Pressley is a brave and principled man.
Since then Elvis, who recently discovered he is distantly related to the real Elvis, has been dropped. No surprise there. Last month, he asked to be left out after reports that he had uncovered a plot to strip him of his captaincy. A week ago Ivanauskas said he was integral to his plans, and that players were free to express their opinions in a democracy. The problem is that Romanov’s Hearts is not a democracy.
At the weekend, Pressley was again dropped, probably for the final time.
Again, we were told he was not ill or injured. If we were living in Stalin’s Soviet Union, doubtless Pressley would be shivering in Siberia by now. As it is, he might well make the shorter and less threatening trip to Dundee United. But make no mistake, Elvis is a modern-day dissident, a man who stood up to a bully with money, a sporting hero.—Â
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