Ian Murray was on a train destined for London yesterday when a phonecall from Bryan Jackson brightened an otherwise gloomy Monday morning.
Like every other Hearts supporter, Murray was still digesting the dejection of his team’s loss to nine-man Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the League Cup semi-final when Jackson’s name appeared on his mobile.
It was a most timely intervention. Hearts’ joint administrator was calling to deliver news that the club should exit administration before the end of April. BDO, the restructuring firm in charge at Tynecastle since June 19 last year, had finalised an agreement to secure 50 per cent of the club’s shares from the Lithuanian firm Ukio Bankas Investment Group (UBIG). Those will be passed on to Foundation of Hearts, the fans’ umbrella group Murray chairs, once the process has gone through a necessary legal procedure in Lithuania.
Murray’s relief was replicated across the country as word spread through social media, text messages and more phonecalls.
It had been a long wait for the Foundation to be able to say they had secured UBIG’s shares. Their £2.5million Creditors’ Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) to obtain another 29.9 per cent of Hearts shares from Ukio Bankas was agreed in November. Finally, the process could move towards the sale and purchase agreement many doubted would ever see the light of day.
After the disappointment of losing on penalties at Easter Road on Sunday, this added a dose of perspective for all concerned. Safeguarding their club was the primary objective; the aim which superseded all others. Hearts had just lost a national cup semi-final in disastrous fashion, but Jackson’s news that they would survive to fight another day was the ideal pick-me-up.
“The staff at Hearts and the supporters have been through the wringer this season,” said Murray, who interrupted his train journey a second time to speak to the Evening News. “At the 94-minute mark on Sunday, we all thought things would be looking a little bit better. However, these things happen in football. The main thing is to get the club out of administration and safe. If we achieve that, the memories of what happened on Sunday will pale into insignificance.”
That “if” now becomes a “when”. The Evening News revealed two weeks ago that BDO had agreed a price with UBIG for their shares. The intervening time has seen Jackson chase UBIG’s own administrators for a signature, which has finally arrived.
“We’re not getting carried away, but it is another hurdle we’ve overcome,” continued Murray. “The main thing now is we’re talking about “when” the club comes out of administration rather than “if”. That is a huge step forward and is definitely lifts some of the gloom after yesterday.
“It’s been a rollercoaster for everyone. We’ve had a team working hard at the Foundation with our advisors to try and get this sorted. BIDCO [a group of local businesspeople who will fund the CVA] has been working very hard to get it sorted and, of course, so have BDO.
“It has been a long road and there is still a bit of road still to travel, but at least we’re getting there. The most important thing is to make sure that the club survives and we’re slightly closer to that now following this announcement.”
Murray is remaining slightly cautious because UBIG’s creditors must formally approve the sale of the shares before it goes through a Lithuanian court. Those procedures are not expected to block the process, with Foundation of Hearts expecting to be in full control at Tynecastle before the end of the season.
“We have to respect the fact that there is a legal process to run through in Lithuania. We’ve never said anything other than the fact it is frustrating but legal processes tend to be that way as everyone tries to do things properly.
“We are still slightly apprehensive on the basis that this isn’t all done and dusted yet, but we do have to let them run through those legislative processes. Hopefully it will all come together as quickly as possible.
“UBIG will need to have a creditors’ meeting to approve this deal and that approval will have to be lodged with a court. That process is similar to this country. It’s very unusual to get a legally challenged creditors’ meeting.”
Ultimately, the next eight to ten weeks are about Hearts fans seizing a unique opportunity to have a say in how their club is run. More than 7600 have pledged cash to the Foundation through monthly membership, money which will help fund the club on a month-to-month basis once the takeover is complete.
After the Vladimir Romanov era and tangled ownership structure he created, most will welcome some more sensible football governance in Gorgie.
“We have an opportunity here to get the club into new ownership that is slightly less complicated. That can only benefit the club,” explained Murray.
“We’ve been on a bit of a rollercoaster with so many peaks and troughs. What we need to do is get the club into ownership of the people who care about it most. Then we have to build from scratch, making sure it’s sustainable and living within its means. There’s no doubt Hearts is the third biggest club in Scotland in terms of numbers. That means we should be able to consistently perform as the third best team whilst living within our means.
“That’s what everybody connected with Tynecastle wants, for the club to build from the bottom up, create some good young players and for Hearts to be a club that people feel is part of the community again.”
The Foundation intends to execute that very plan by focusing on developing Hearts’ own players.
“Although the circumstances have been forced on the club, I think the model they have followed this season is the way forward. 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.”