PUNISHMENTS issued to Hearts over their financial collapse is a touchy subject at the moment.
Inside the Riccarton dressing-room, there is a view that the squad was duped by former owner Vladimir Romanov and his Lithuanian associates. The young players left shouldering the burden and consequences of administration feel they were never prepared for what awaited them this season.
Dylan McGowan, the Australian defender now in his sixth year with Hearts, is grateful for the chance to play regular first-team football as are many of his colleagues who have been promoted from the club’s youth academy. Administration, a ban on signing players and a 15-point deduction have left them struggling to cope and 19 points adrift at the bottom of the league table whilst gaining plenty experience of how ruthless senior football can be.
McGowan explained today that none of the previous Hearts hierarchy prepared the players for what was in store. Romanov, Sergejus Fedotovas and other directors continued as normal without declaring administration was on the horizon, even as late as the end of last season. Within a month of the campaign ending, director Vitalijus Vasiliauskas lodged papers at Edinburgh’s Court of Session to appoint an administrator before flying off to Lithuania.
Whilst McGowan is not bitter at the penalties imposed on Hearts, he is irked that no-one took time to inform the players of the intention to enter administration and the difficulties they could face as a result. “People just see the 15-point deduction, but they don’t know the story behind it,” he said.
“We didn’t have the money to keep a lot of our senior players last year. We had no money in the summer to strengthen even before we went into administration. We have no chance to strengthen now even though the transfer window is open because we have a registration embargo. It’s not just the 15-point deduction which has hit us this season. It’s the lack of depth in the squad, the lack of leadership that we have and it comes down to a lack of experience as well.
“The squad don’t take too much to do with the punishments. We didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. We found out we were in administration at the same time the newspapers and everyone else did. We were under the impression everything was okay – that wages were late because certain things were getting held up in Lithuania. It was never a case of, ‘listen, this is what’s going to happen next season’. We all went away over the summer expecting this season to be like every other. Then we’ve come back and been hit with all these sanctions. As a player, it’s another set of hurdles put in front of you and we’re struggling to get over them at the minute.
“We’re definitely taking our fair share of punches. We’re just trying our best. I’d be lying to say the players don’t think about the fact we’re at the bottom of the league. Every time someone comes to play us, they get a lift. They know it’s not that big a deal if they lose because we’re so far behind. Partick Thistle would’ve come to Tynecastle on Sunday under no pressure. If they lost, they would still have been 14 points in front of us. It’s easy to come and play under those circumstances.”
Thistle’s 2-0 win was simply the latest in a long line of setbacks for the Hearts players and their manager, Gary Locke. Some, like Locke’s assistant Billy Brown, believe the situation is damaging the younger players’ development with too few experienced hands to guide them. McGowan feels sympathy can only stretch so far.
“The atmosphere was very down after the game on Sunday, that’s probably the best way to describe it. The boys are just devastated. This seems to be happening week in, week out. We’re trying our best to stop it and it’s not happening for us at the moment. It’s tough to take. The only thing we can do is keep working hard at the training. That’s the only thing we know how to do.
“All these boys would be complaining that we weren’t getting a chance if we did have a full-strength squad. Now that we are getting a chance, we’ve got to make sure we’re deserving of it. At the moment, I don’t think we’re playing like we are. I think it’s learn-on-your-feet time. Experienced players can only tell you so much, they can’t hold your hand through everything.
“You’ve got to go out onto the pitch by yourself and play your own game. Obviously guys with experience would definitely help. Maybe after a game they can tell you that you didn’t do this or you didn’t do that. It’s always easier coming from a fellow player rather than the gaffer or Billy Brown or someone from the coaching staff. At the end of the day, we’ve all played for the majority of the season so there are no real excuses any more.”
Whereas Tynecastle has always been regarded as a fortress within Scottish football, it is currently a garden of roses for any Premiership team needing a confidence boost.
McGowan heard the criticism from some fans on Sunday and is eager for Hearts to make themselves harder to beat. “We’d definitely have more points if we didn’t have the transfer embargo. Every game wouldn’t be a labelled a must-win,” he continued. “That’s the situation we’re in and we just have to live with it. At the back of your mind, you know you have to win because a draw isn’t really enough any more. That plays on your mind.
“The people you’re standing next to in the tunnel are coming to play at a great place like Tynecastle with no pressure. If you’re in the other team, it’s an easy day for you. If you lose, you lose, but you can go out and express yourself. I think a lot of teams have come to Tynecastle and played their best football and that’s something we’ll have to eradicate. We need to get on top of teams here.
“The fans pay their money. I’ve been here a long time and seen it several times with better teams than ours. The supporters have been patient this year and I think, with the amount of money they’ve put in and the length of time they’ve stuck with us, they’re more than entitled to do that. With a performance like Sunday’s, as a player you’re fully accepting of whatever reception you get because you now it’s not good enough. The fans have done that to voice their opinion and rightly so.”
McGowan also offered a fulsome appraisal of Locke as he diligently works on despite the restrictions placed on his team. “He’s working with both his hands tied behind his back. I don’t think he’s even had time to scout a player, let along make a signing. It’s not his team. This team has been thrust upon him. He took the job, he’s had to lose players and bring younger boys in – some of them before they were ready. When it is his team, then that’s when he can be judged.”