JOHN ROBERTSON sat round a table with Hearts director Sergejus Fedotovas and managing director David Southern. He demanded to know where the club that made him a living legend was heading. The answers were clear and straightforward. A share issue was vital to provide revenue through to the end of the season and Hearts wanted their record goalscorer to front it.
Reservations Robertson had quickly evaporated because he felt the men sitting in front of him were not looking to hide anything. Hearts’ future was laid out on said table. With supporters’ help, not to mention Robertson becoming ambassador for the share issue, survival was guaranteed. Without fans investing, well, that didn’t really bear thinking about.
Problems paying wages, a possible £1.75million tax bill and lack of investors willing to buy out majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov forced Hearts’ hand.
The share issue offers ten per cent of the club back to its supporters while helping Hearts through to the end of the season. Thereafter, the wage bill will be further reduced with 14 players out of contract in June 2013. Robertson wanted to know exactly how the supporters money would be used.
He didn’t hold back. If Fedotovas and Southern’s answers didn’t satisfy him, he wouldn’t agree to the ambassadorial role. That he put his name to it should tell any undecided Hearts fan that their money is safe and will be used as stated by the club.
“I asked the same questions every single Hearts fan would ask,” Robertson told the Evening News. “‘Would share money go towards the tax bill?’ No, it won’t. ‘Will it go to wages?’ Some of it might be needed to cover shortfalls there. ‘Will it go to the youth academy?’ Yes. John Murray will get money to try and bring in better players.
“I’ve asked all the questions. ‘Is this share issue part of a long-term plan?’ Yes, there could eventually be more shares released by Vladimir Romanov to allow other people to buy into the club. I don’t think there’s a question I’ve asked David Southern or Sergejus Fedotovas that a Hearts fan wouldn’t have asked. They’ve come back with answers and been very honest and transparent. The share issue brochure was very transparent as well.
“I said to both of them, ‘you can’t hide anything here’. If I’m going to be part of this and help the club then they can’t hide things because I don’t want to look foolish. I can only go on what they’ve told me, and from what they’ve told me I’m happy to help. I put myself forward as a figurehead here because of the plight the club is in.
“When they approached me I was very wary, very suspicious about where this money was going to go. I told Hearts that, before I would agree to do it, I needed them to come back and answer these questions. David didn’t have the answers to all of them. He told me Sergejus was due over and that we would have a big meeting to go through everything with a fine-tooth comb. We did exactly that. Afterwards, I was much better placed to decide and I wanted to help.”
Robertson has already purchased shares himself, which he sees as “more an emotional donation than a financial investment”. “I’ve already bought some but this is for Hearts fans in general. There isn’t a lot of expendable income for people right now but if fans or ex-players can afford to do it then fantastic. You hope people will buy into it. I felt that, having played here for 18 years, I can put a little bit back in and help the club. It’s a call to arms for Hearts fans. It’s not nice and people can say it’s not the best time to launch a share issue. But there never is a good time. After Christmas isn’t a great time because people don’t have money, then you’re getting towards summer holidays.”
A former Hearts manager as well as player, Robertson fully understands the current predicament at Tynecastle. Securing extra funds through to the end of the season is essential. The share issue is a huge part of the plan and needs as many subscribers as possible to reach the intended £1.79m target.
“If we can get close to full subscription with the share issue then that will see the club through to the end of the season,” explained Robertson. “It will then become self-sustainable regarding players’ wages, with the only major layout being interest on the debt. That is now almost back to where it started seven years ago when Vladimir Romanov took over. The cost cutting doesn’t necessarily mean players are going to leave. What it means is that some of the big earners, if they want to stay, will have to take what is a realistic wage for the club. People like Andy Driver and Marius Zaliukas may look about for a move to England. If they can get that, then it’s a no brainer for them. If they can’t, then what’s the next best option? Outside the Old Firm, Hearts are still the best payers in the SPL. These lads have earned the money they negotiated, it’s fantastic for them, but the owner has now realised they have to get back to self-sustainability.
“Look at Vladimir Romanov’s time here. If he hadn’t come in, Hearts would be playing at Tynecastle. Chris Robinson had brokered a deal to sell the place and Hearts would either still be renting Murrayfield or ground-sharing with someone else. We really don’t know. Romanov has kept Hearts here, it’s been a roller-coaster seven years, he’s brought some sensational players to the club, but ultimately he paid the wages through UBIG.
“Every Hearts fan, whilst enjoying the good times, were asking the same question: ‘How can we afford to pay these guys? What’s going to happen when Romanov gets fed up? How’s the club going to go forward?’
“Well, that time has arrived. Debt and wages are coming down and I’m sure there are fans groups and consortia out there who would far rather get involved in a club that is self-sustainable and can afford what it’s paying out. Then you’d need to broker a deal over the debt with Vladimir Romanov, but that’s not my area of expertise. My main concern here is the short term. I want to see Hearts in a position where groups can come forward and negotiate with the owner because, if they can’t get to that point, the club is in big trouble. “It’s not like the club are trying to pull a fast one here. They’re being honest. If there’s one thing that could be questioned during the Vladimir Romanov era it’s that there’s always been this shield round the club. You know yourself, there’s only certain things they’ll tell you at certain times. And it will be completely controlled by them.
“I think this is the first time, possibly ever, that they’ve been totally transparent about the club’s finances and the day-to-day running. You’ve got to applaud them for that. You can criticise the money they’ve spent because it’s their own fault for being in this situation. It’s easy to do that, but at long last they’ve come out now and said ‘we need to do this’. Hopefully it’s the first step towards Hearts being more honest and transparent with their fans.
“Will Hearts still be at Tynecastle in six years? We don’t know. The next six weeks will determine what happens for the next six months which could, ultimately, determine what happens for the next six years.”