Hearts situation of 100 years ago bears uncanny parallels with today

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DEBT spiralling out of control, stadium needing redeveloped, players being sold to cut costs and supporters relying on a Russian businessman to save their team. This is not just Hearts of 2011, for over 100 years ago the very same issues were the talk of the toon in Gorgie as the Edinburgh club fought to stay alive.

Parallels between Hearts’ problems of the early 1900s and the modern day almost send a shiver down the spine. Current debts of £36 million are comparable to the £1450 owed in 1905. Pressure from the tax man and creditors threatened to kill Hearts off back then until a Russian entrepreneur and his associates intervened.

Vladimir Romanov might be considered rich and astute, however back in the day Elias Fürst was Hearts’ saviour along with the main shareholder of the Evening News, George Wilson, and a local councillor named James Leishman. With the team decimated and funds wiped out after a fire destroyed Tynecastle, those three founded a new company to rebuild the team, pay off debts and prevent liquidation. Hearts trade as that very company to this day.

The club’s popularity was growing steadily in the early 20th century. They won the Scottish Cup in 1901, beating Celtic, and reached the 1903 final. The 1903 semi-final took place at Tynecastle (neutral venues were not used then) in front of a crowd just under 30,000. But the ground capacity was only 26,000, resulting in huge overspills and significant damage to the stadium.

Hearts incurred scathing criticism with the first Ibrox disaster in 1902 still fresh in everyone’s minds. Directors planned to spend cash raised from reaching the 1903 final to improve the stadium, but matters were taken out of their hands in April 1903 when a fire destroyed the South Stand.

Around £700 of damage was caused and insurance only covered a third of that amount, therefore Hearts had to pay £1143 to replace the stand with a new pavilion and press box. That wiped out all profits from the 1903 final. The club was consequently short on capital when they should have been flush after reaching a cup final. All of a sudden, investment in the ground and the team was essential and bills began to mount up.

The first “Heart of Midlothian Football Club (Ltd)” was formed in August 1903 with capital of £3000. Hearts was a members club at that time which people paid to join every year, and the £3000 was donated by existing members. Shares were not issued to the general public and the £3000 capital was eaten up quickly with stadium repairs and a couple of new players arriving.

During the 1903/04 season the Hearts team was plundered by English Southern League clubs. They didn’t have to pay transfer fees because they were outwith the agreement between the Scottish League and the English Football League, which stated poaching players was forbidden. Captain Albert Buick and David Axford joined Portsmouth, whilst Mark Bell defected to Fulham, all for nothing.

By the end of season 1904/05 Hearts found themselves in serious financial trouble, running at a loss on a weekly basis. The bank demanded security and outstanding creditors were pressing the club hard. Unpaid rates, taxes and creditors totalled £1450 – a laughable amount today but the wage bill at the time amounted to just £60 per week and a good home attendance at Tynecastle would draw £150. The debt was too big for a relatively small company.

The club had been forced to sell players to stay afloat, with Chelsea paying a total of £300 for George Key, Robert Mackie and Martin Moran. That quickened the need for new investment.

The solution was proposed by a group of influential men who were to become the driving forces of the new Hearts. Fürst, Wilson and Leishman – later Sir James Leishman – formed a new company to take over the assets of the old one and pay its debts. In April 1905, the company was incorporated with a subtle change. It was called “The Heart of Midlothian Football Club, Ltd”. Adding “the” allowed the formation of a new company to rescue the old one, and it began with £5000 of capital.

Fürst was a Russian born in to a German family living in Lithuania. He came from an area of the Russian empire called the Courland, roughly where Lithuania and Latvia now stand. It is believed he was born in St Petersburg although his family moved around between eastern Europe and Britain.

Fürst worked as a watchmaker and jeweller in Edinburgh and was a very active shareholder in Hearts. A clever businessman who ran his own company, he, along with Wilson and Leishman, was instrumental in keeping Hearts alive. In fact, he was to enjoy a very impressive administrative career in Scottish football. He was elected to the Hearts board in 1907 and remained a director until 1935. He was involved in issues surrounding the Great War and the War Memorial, and eventually became president of the Scottish Football League. Wilson was voted on to the board of directors in 1905 and was later chairman of Hearts.

Their collective guidance quickly paved the way for new successes and Hearts won the Scottish Cup again in 1906, beating Third Lanark 1-0 in the final at Ibrox. The new company formed in 1905 had astute people behind it but they weren’t slow to point fingers at their predecessors. Board minutes from that period confirm some internal acrimony, with Fürst and his colleagues blaming the original board for leading the club into trouble and having them threatened with liquidation.

Hearts were intent on challenging the Old Firm again having flirted dangerously with extinction. Russian oligarchs didn’t exist then as they do now, but Hearts will forever be in debt to Elias Fürst and those who performed the 1905 rescue act.