Foundation of Hearts will have many issues to address when entering Tynecastle for the first time as outright owners.
Before they can even click the kettle on, the first thing needing attention will be players’ contracts.
More than half of Hearts’ squad are on deals expiring at the end of the season, which is just weeks after the Foundation are due to take control. Twelve of the current 21-man first-team pool are in the final few months of their existing agreements. It will be down to the Foundation and the board they appoint to determine who remains. A deal to transfer nearly 80 per cent of shares to the fans’ group was finalised by Hearts’ administrators BDO earlier this week. It is estimated the club will exit administration and be in the Foundation’s hands by April, by which time the contracts issue will be an urgent one.
Two of the players whose deals are expiring are experienced mainstays – goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald and the versatile Jamie Hamill. Others are first-team regulars like defenders Dylan McGowan and Brad McKay, wingers Jamie Walker and David Smith, plus midfielder Jason Holt. There is also reserve goalkeeper Mark Ridgers, strikers Dale Carrick and Gary Oliver, midfielder Callum Tapping and winger Sam Nicholson out of contract. In addition to those 12, Paul McCallum is due to return to parent club West Ham when his loan ends in May.
Concern is alleviated somewhat by the fact Hearts have options to keep hold of certain players. They have the right to extend the contracts of McKay, Walker, Smith, Holt and Carrick for a further 12 months. Clauses were inserted when each of that quintet signed on, entitling the club to keep them should they wish to do so. All have shown enough promise so far to ensure they are worthy of another year but the final decision will be the Foundation’s.
Many of the above are highly-rated graduates of the Riccarton youth academy; the types of players Hearts are expected to build their new team around for next season and beyond. The Foundation are due to herald a new era of fan ownership in Gorgie by April this year, once the legal process of bringing Hearts out of administration is completed. How bright that new dawn is will depend what team they can put on the pitch. Senior figures within the fan-led group are already aware of the contractual situation they will inherit. Consultations about the renewal procedure have taken place within the group but no decisions will be made until the transfer of ownership takes place and Hearts exit administration. Then the Foundation will move in and begin executing their plans for the future.
By that point, Hearts could well find themselves relegated to the Championship and would need to budget accordingly. Many players have stated they would willingly stay at Tynecastle and help the club regain their place in the top flight with the Foundation in charge. Realistically, some may move on, either through personal choice or because their contract is not being renewed.
There is an argument that playing in the Championship would benefit younger players whose deals are extended. The pressure of fighting relegation this season and trying to overhaul a 15-point penalty for entering administration has taken its toll on some, particularly those in their first full season with the senior squad.
The Championship carries less exposure and consequently less limelight and pressure. That may be preferable for the Tynecastle teenagers who are still feeling their way into professional football. Nonetheless, it should not be forgotten that Scotland’s second tier will almost certainly include Rangers next season, and possibly Dunfermline as well. That will ensure greater attention is paid to what is already the country’s most competitive league.
It would be naive to think that the ratio of youngsters to experienced players in Hearts’ squad for season 2014/15 will be quite as lop-sided as it is right now. The best academy kids will be retained and developed further, but supporters can also expect some more established names to be recruited once the Foundation are in place as owners.
The challenge for the automatic promotion place in next season’s Championship promises to be intriguing, but whoever fails will want to ensure they can still earn promotion through the play-offs. That is when experience and strong nerves will be vital, thus Hearts may need to be well prepared. They already have Ryan Stevenson, Scott Robinson, Callum Paterson, Jordan McGhee and Jack Hamilton on contracts until June 2015. Robinson’s agreement includes the option of a 12-month extension. Captain Danny Wilson, left-back Kevin McHattie and winger Billy King are tied up until June 2016. The Foundation are keen to build on Hearts’ reputation for developing young players, albeit they will also have their own transfer targets in mind to augment the squad. Only this week, Foundation of Hearts chairman, Ian Murray MP, outlined the group’s plans for rearing more kids at Riccarton.
“Although the circumstances have been forced on the club, I think the model they have followed this season is the way forward,” said Murray. “We’ve got some very bright young kids coming through. In actual fact, Hearts wouldn’t have been able to put a team out had it not been for the success of the academy. I think that’s the way forward, not just for Hearts, but for the whole of Scottish football. Other people are beginning to realise that now.
“Hearts is a tremendously attractive proposition for young people to come to as well. Hopefully, once the club has settled down, is out of administration and starting to get back onto an even keel, it will be an attractive proposition to get some of the best talent in.”
That is a thought to behold for supporters. However, the first thing Foundation figures will do when they walk through Tynecastle’s main door in the spring is head for the filing cabinet marked “contracts”. It is then that the reality of running a football club is likely to sink in.