Ask most people what they think of first when you ask them to think about Edinburgh and if they are from outside the city then they will almost always say the Castle or the Festival. Ask the same question of the type of gentlemen in this city who frequent public houses and they will usually say Hibs and/or Hearts, or Hearts and/or Hibs depending on whether they see the world through green- or maroon-coloured glasses.
Sport is very important to the city, and even though some of the principal venues are suffering from long-term neglect – Meadowbank and its velodrome to name but two – we do have two very fine stadia in Murrayfield and Easter Road.
Tynecastle on the other hand is a disgrace. Potentially one of the finest football grounds on the planet, it is simply no longer fit for purpose with the state of the old main stand, a particular concern. The stadium is outmoded, which is a remark that could apply to the ownership of Hearts and the way that much of Scottish professional football is organised.
Vladimir Romanov’s tenure of ownership is coming to an end, that much is clear. I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for the former submarine captain who was determined to steer his boat – submariners always talk of boats, not ships – in his own idiosyncratic way. He came into Scottish football talking a great game, particularly with his pledges to overcome the duopoly of the Old Firm.
Not even Romanov in his wildest flights of fancy could have foreseen the problems that have beset Rangers FC. That the country’s most successful club in terms of domestic honours should be languishing in the Third Division remains a blot on the escutcheon of Scottish football which shall never be erased.
The prospect of Hearts joining them in that division seemed a very real threat just a few weeks ago, but thanks to those loyal fans of the men in maroon, the club appears to be out of danger for the immediate future.
My contention is that Hearts and every other Scottish football club are far too important to their communities to risk their destruction. They should never be subject to the whims of wealthy owners who, as Romanov has shown, may simply end their financial backing.
Unlike the situation with Rangers, I have personally heard no Hibs fans other than complete bampots glorying in the potential demise of Hearts.
They remember only too well the days more than 20 years ago now when their own club was in peril of extinction for the second time in its history, and Hearts’ owner Wallace Mercer launched his merger bid.
It was no such thing, of course, as Wallace admitted to me many years later – it was going to be a “snuff movie” for Hibs, was how he described it. Thanks to Hands off Hibs and Tom Farmer, Hibs survived and decent fans never forget that he stepped in when nobody else wanted to touch Hibs with a bargepole. That he faces constant demands for more investment in the club is proof that fans have ambitions with other people’s wallets.
I am well aware that Romanov is a unique individual and Hearts’ situation was unique in that he took over a failing institution – any club having to sell its own ground to clear its debt had by definition failed – but the difference between him and Farmer is that the Lithuanian promised to spend plenty to achieve his dream of competing with the Old Firm.
My problem with Farmer, Romanov, Sir David Murray, Craig Whyte, and the many other individuals who own or have owned football clubs in this country is just that – they are individuals. Some of them have been more thousandaires than millionaires, but all of them have been able to take control of clubs and use them as their playthings for good or ill.
Some people have tried to characterise that mode of ownership as being 19th century in origin, but that is plainly wrong. Most clubs with histories dating back to the 1800s – as is the case for most senior Scottish football clubs – owe their existence to small groups of people from similar backgrounds who got together to form an association. That club would then join in association with other clubs, and that is the root of why the sport of soccer is called association football.
Hearts, Hibs, and most clubs in Scotland are now run on a company basis, with boards of directors, often but not always the placemen – and they nearly all are men – of the principal shareholder.
I have nothing against Romanov, other than that I think he should make a dignified exit, and I certainly have nothing against Tom Farmer, who I know to be a decent individual and a great Leither.
But I think the time has come for football club ownership in Edinburgh and Scotland as a whole to be changed forever. It is time for broad associations of thousands of people to own the clubs not as shareholders but members. Imagine Hibs and Hearts owned by their fans – at the very least, the fans would have to use their own wallets and the Hearts legions have shown they will do so.
It is time for football to go back to its association roots. Member ownership can be very successful. Just ask Barcelona.