“The Board is remaining focused on transforming the business into a much more youthful, enterprising, entertaining and financially viable club.” The words of Sergejus Fedotovas should be music to the ears of Hearts supporters.
The next six months will witness a revolution at Tynecastle which, if managed properly, could not only preserve the club’s existence but also excite its paying public. Financial arrears of around £36million will take years to overhaul but there is no denying a more stable and self-sufficient Hearts benefits all of Scottish football.
Fedotovas and Vladimir Romanov have formulated a plan centring around streamlining all areas of the club, with specific attention on the playing staff. Almost 60 players are currently employed to service just two teams – Paulo Sergio’s first team and Darren Murray’s under-19 side. The phrase top-heavy doesn’t quite cover it. Cuts are essential to reduce costs with wages currently running late for the second successive month.
With that in mind, Hearts appear ready to prioritise their kids by opening the first-team doors. Fedotovas’ question-and-answer session published on the club website at the weekend confirmed the need for change. Many established stars will be moved on between now and next summer and replaced with graduates of Riccarton. Some teenagers, like Jason Holt, David Smith and Jamie Walker, are already being loaned out to gain first-team experience and prepare them for promotion.
If the transformation goes as planned, we could be looking at an entirely different Hearts in just a few months. One which supporters will identify with, appreciate and very probably be excited by if it is underpinned by raw talent and more efficient financial management. Challenging for Europe whilst debt levels increase and threaten your club’s future seems senseless when compared to nurturing a homegrown team containing the vibrancy and enthusiasm brought by academy pupils.
The extent of the downsizing will depend on how many buyers Romanov can source for established players under contract. Nevertheless, 12 first-team members are out of contract between January and June next year, offering a prime opportunity for Fedotovas and Romanov to prune the Hearts squad. Rudi Skacel and Janos Balogh become free agents in January when their current deals expire, whilst Marian Kello, Suso, Eggert Jonsson, Kevin Kyle, Stephen Elliott, Ryan Stevenson, David Obua, Calum Elliot, Gary Glen and Jamie MacDonald are all out of contract in June. Some, like Jonsson and MacDonald, could be retained to smooth the transition. Others, like Suso and Obua, won’t be.
Ready to step in to the breach are a clutch of aspiring youngsters. Ryan McGowan, Scott Robinson, Gordon Smith and Arvydas Novikovas already have decent experience of senior football and are established members of Sergio’s first-team pool. Jason Holt, David Smith, Jamie Walker, Mark Ridgers, Kevin McHattie and Dylan McGowan – Ryan’s younger brother – are academy products who are now eager to fight for SPL points.
Hearts acknowledge that young players are now the future, with many clubs across Scotland and beyond realising their importance. They can be reared to understand their club’s principles and appreciate the value of a first-team shirt. To them it represents the holy grail, the gateway to prosperity. They cost a fraction of an experienced signing and, on occasions, can secure significant fees if transferred on.
In addition, supporters easily identify with a kid honed within their club’s own system and will be visibly more patient with that player when he transcends to the first team. When an experienced new signing arrives he is often branded good or bad within a few games, whereas fans appreciate the enthusiasm of youth products and will give them more time to adapt.
At Falkirk, teenagers dominate the first team every week. “Playing so many youngsters is not something that fazes us or makes us fearful. We actually enjoy the challenge,” said manager Steven Pressley, a former Hearts captain. “You can mump or moan about it but our club is based around developing young players. They never cease to amaze us.”
Falkirk, like Hearts, promoted proteges largely because of budget cuts last summer. Their kids have flourished by beating Rangers and Dundee United to secure a place in the League Cup semi-finals. They are also in the Challenge Cup final and sit second in the First Division.
Financial profligacy has inflicted endless pain on Hearts followers with debt threatening to spiral beyond control. Much of it could be attributed to inflated salaries for average players, and far too many of them at that. Think Larry Kingston and Mirsad Beslija. Hearts’ wage bill peaked at 126 per cent of turnover in 2010 and Romanov stated then that youth was the way forward. He never quite followed through, though, as a host of experienced free transfers arrived in the intervening period. There is now a far more pressing need to make Hearts a far more attractive prospect in order to sell his majority shareholding.
Of course, this blueprint is not without flaws. Young footballers are notoriously inconsistent and Hearts supporters may require to be extra patient over performances and results whilst kids undergo their top-team initiation. Short-term pain but long-term gain, if you like.
The physical aspect cannot be overlooked either with academy graduates often needing to bulk up to survive in the brutal world of the SPL. Holt, last season’s SPL Under-19 Player of the Year, would be a prime example although there is no denying his credentials for performing at the highest level.
So, by this time next year, the Hearts team could be something along the lines of: Mark Ridgers in goal; a defence of Ryan McGowan, Dylan McGowan, Andy Webster and Kevin McHattie; Jamie Walker, Holt, Scott Robinson and Arvydas Novikovas in midfield, with David and Gordon Smith in attack. Add Matthew Park, Robert Ogleby, Denis Prychynenko and Jordan Morton into the mix and you have a very youthful, dynamic and home-grown senior squad.
Ridgers, a hulking, imposing shot-stopper, could have the ever-reliable MacDonald as competition for the goalkeeping slot should the latter extend his contract. Dylan McGowan is a defender very much in the mould of his elder brother with a gritty but cultured approach to his football. McHattie is a specialist left-back who likes to get forward and possesses presence, pace and sound distribution.
In midfield, Robinson’s aggression and drive would complement the skill and craft of Holt, with the direct running of Jamie Walker a useful addition on the flank. David Smith is a powerful runner up front with a fine scoring record at youth level. His namesake Gordon has been waiting patiently all season to prove his worth and will be eager to seize any opportunities after the New Year.
Of course, some experienced faces will be retained to nurture their younger counterparts and offer a steadying influence. The others will all leave in time, but downsizing does not necessarily mean Hearts going downmarket.