FANS fighting to save their club today vowed that Hearts’ decision to put its star players up for sale would not deflect their attempts at a takeover bid.
Edinburgh South Labour MP Ian Murray, who is spearheading the fans’ efforts, said: “We are even more determined after this news – but the situation is very uncertain and the very existence of the club is hanging by a thread.”
He said the urgency of Hearts’ plight might even help the fans’ groups secure the financial support needed to rescue the club. “It might increase our chances of being successful because people might realise it’s now or never.”
Hearts’ announcement, made via the club website
yesterday, admitted it was having difficulty meeting its tax bills and paying the wages of players and staff because income from season tickets had dried up. And it said: “The club will consider offers for the players of the current squad, including the most promising talent in order for the most necessary and important payments to be made. We understand that this will lead to significant on-field pressure but at all times we must consider the health of the club and preserve it for future generations.”
Mr Murray, who chairs the umbrella group Foundation of Hearts, is due to update supporters at a meeting at Tynecastle tonight, which will be attended by 300 fans.
He said: “This is very bad news. The club is teetering on the brink. But we cannot divert from what we are trying to do. It focuses the mind.”
Mr Murray, pictured below right, said in the next few days supporters who have pledged money will be getting emails asking them to convert their promises into cash by clicking on a button to activate a direct debit.
Paul Goodwin, head of Supporters Direct Scotland, also said the statement won’t halt the takeover efforts. He said: “None of this changes what we are trying to do. Our focus is on the meeting tonight. Ian Murray has done a fantastic job in galvanising the various fans’ groups.
“Hopefully we can give people a bit more confidence and we can go forward.”
He said every club had players for sale. “Players are commodities more so than they have ever been in the past – you have to use them and move them on. But they’ve just signed Danny Wilson from Liverpool on a three-year contract. There’s no bigger mixed message than that.
“The difficulty with Hearts is there are so many things going on behind the scenes we don’t know about, and a lot of it is happening in a foreign country, outwith the control of existing directors. It’s really difficult to understand what’s going on and what happens next.
“You could argue this is scaremongering [on the part of the club], but I think it’s more them just telling the truth. Looking at the big holistic picture, will there always be a Hearts? Yes. Will they still be playing in the premier league? Probably, yes. It’s just how we get through this just now.”
Hearts have already reduced its wages bill by more than £3 million over the past year, with annual salary costs as low as £1.5m ahead of next season.
But the club owes the taxman about £100,000 and has debts of £25m and a predicted funding shortfall of £2m over the next 12 months.
In the statement, the club blamed “hesitation and inaction” from supporters for the lack of cash – despite the £1.1m generated from a share issue just six months ago. Season ticket sales remain below the 7000 mark.
Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov, who took control of the club in 2005, has reportedly fled to Moscow, prompting investigators to seek a European arrest warrant over the alleged embezzlement of £12m of assets from his bank Ukio Bankas.
Charlie Mann, former adviser to Romanov, said he had no doubts about the seriousness of Hearts’ position.
He said: “Anyone who thinks they are crying wolf would be naive. There are obviously serious problems.”
And he warned there were limits to how much fans could be expected to stump up.
“Most clubs in Scotland have issues of cash flow during the close season. You have the loyalty of the Hearts fans, who will always do their utmost and have put their hands in their pockets quite considerably over the last few months. But like everyone else in the world people are struggling and you can only go to the well so many times.”
Steve Kilgour, of the Federation of Hearts Supporters Clubs, said the club’s statement was worrying, but he remained optimistic.
“It’s all about getting through this and keeping the club alive. The fans have been fantastic in supporting the club so far. They have covered Romanov’s mismanagement and hopefully this is the end of Romanov’s time at the club and we can look to the future. I hope we can get enough money in from a couple of player sales to tide us over until we get a buyer in who can restructure the club financially and take us forward.”
Deputy city council leader Steve Cardownie, a keen Hearts supporter, questioned whether the statement had really revealed anything new and said he did not see the move to sell players as a shift of policy.
“What has changed?” he asked. “I always understood any player could be sold if the price was right. That’s the case for any club. Hearts have always sold players to raise money. Hibs have done it as well. If Hearts were saying ‘we’ll sell any player at any price’ that would be different, but I don’t think that is what they’re saying. They’re making it clear they will listen to offers. It might be to demonstrate to HMRC that we’re doing everything we can to pay off the debts. But I see it as a reminder rather than a new policy. I won’t be losing any sleep over it.”
Hearts managing director David Southern insists the financially-stricken club will only consider serious offers for their players after putting their entire squad up for sale.
And he gave his own thoughts to the desperate nature of the club’s problems by saying: “It’s a bad place. We’re not in a good place at the moment and we’re just going to have to try to get through the situation and reach the start of the season, when the income streams will hopefully start flowing again.”
Asked about the season ticket money that had already been collected, he said: “Most of it is accounted for. We always knew there was going to be a dry spell through June and July. That happens during the game. But, for us, it’s a difficult, difficult time at the moment.”
Former Hearts chairman Lord George Foulkes said he had been “taken aback” at the club’s shock player fire-sale bombshell.
He said: “We have had them appearing to cry wolf before and everything has been sorted out at the last minute. But now I think it’s for real.” He said that if enough people renewed their season ticket that would sort things out in the short term, but in the medium term it needed “someone who is serious about making a bid for the club to move very quickly”.
He said: “The main message has to be if anyone has been holding back, now is the time to come forward.
Plumbing company boss Pat Munro, who has made three unsuccessful bids for Hearts in the past, said today he was not involved in any fresh attempt to takeover the club.
Selling players ‘a decision of last resort’
SELLING the club’s top players is “a decision of last resort”, according to football finance expert Neil Patey of accountancy firm Ernst & Young.
He said Hearts’ statement made it clear that the club was struggling on a day-to-day basis just to pay its bills.
“We knew the summer was going to be crunch time,” he said. “There is no revenue coming in apart from season ticket income.
“That’s what keeps clubs going at this time of year.
“I can understand fans, who, on the one hand, emotionally, want to support the club – and if everyone renewed their season ticket it would probably see the club through to next season But on the other hand they might end up with a season ticket which could prove worthless and not be honoured if the club were to go into administration.
“Selling the best players is a decision of last resort when the alternative might be administration.
“If you sell players, the question is what sort of playing squad are you left with for next season?”
No bail-out from SPL says Doncaster
HEARTS have been told the Scottish Premier League will not step in to bail them out of their latest financial crisis.
The SPL has hired lawyers in Lithuania to monitor the ongoing insolvency situations with UBIG, the investment firm formerly controlled by Jambos owner Vladimir Romanov that still holds 50 per cent of the club’s shares, and Ukio Bankas.
But SPL chief Neil Doncaster says the league will not be able to hand Hearts a crisis loan.
He said: “We are continuing to monitor the situation very closely and we will see what arises.
“The SPL has very clear rules about what fees are provided to clubs and when.
Those rules are absolutely being complied with. There is no slush fund that exists to loan extra money to any one club.
Meanwhile Hibs chairman Rod Petrie has said the situation Hearts find themselves in is the fault of the club’s directors.
But he said he had no wish to see the club go out of business – saying the retention of one of the biggest clubs in the country was vital.