WITH promotion evermore likely and attendances swelling, Hearts’ short to medium-term future looks healthy.
The transformed landscape around Tynecastle in the space of eight months since the end of administration is quite remarkable. The club is stable, top of the league and winning matches week after week. For the first time in a long time, fans are excited about what lies ahead.
The long-term plan involves more changes under the fan ownership vehicle Foundation of Hearts. However, Foundation chair Ian Murray stressed today that should be no cause for alarm. While some remain sceptical about the concept of fan ownership in football – especially with Hearts currently thriving under the stewardship of Ann Budge – Murray insisted the new structure in place at Tynecastle will be carried forward under the Foundation.
An agreement is in place for the fans’ group to assume control of Hearts from current owner Ann Budge in just over four years time. She is effectively fronting their takeover, having paid £2.5 million to get the Edinburgh club out of administration last June. She is to be repaid fully by The Foundation within five years, with 8000 monthly Foundation pledges helping to fund Hearts in the meantime.
Some have questioned whether orthodox football fans are capable of running a club. Murray, who represents the Foundation on the current Hearts board, explained that pledgers will be able to join the board once the Foundation is in charge but certain figureheads will take up key roles. The foundations of Hearts’ revival have been a long time in the planning and will stay in place. In short, chances of Joe Public being hauled out of Section N and asked to run take charge at Tynecastle are slim to none.
Murray is aware of supporters’ concerns hopes and wishes for the future. He told the Evening News that the Foundations plans are for sensible, stable leadership with properly qualified people in control. They want the stability brought by Budge and her associates to carry on long after her tenure ends.
“The football club at the moment is run by a chief executive, an operations director, a director of football and a managing director,” said Murray. “Ann Budge, Eric Hogg, Craig Levein and Scott Gardiner are in those positions. The waters are slightly muddied right now because Ann has the dual role of chairing the board and being chief executive.
“The club will still be run by a chief executive, a director of operations, a director of football, etc. The Foundation of Hearts, whilst owning Hearts and populating the board, won’t directly run the club. When we do elections from the 8000 members who will own Hearts, they will have to satisfy certain criteria.
“This isn’t a case of locking out the ordinary punter. If an ordinary punter is a member of the Foundation, they are perfectly entitled to be on the board of the club for that process. However, there will be specific roles we need filled. For example, you wouldn’t want a director of finance who isn’t qualified to be a member of the chartered institute of accountants. We haven’t worked all of that out yet because we need to do this in conjunction with Hearts and the transition plan for the Foundation. That’s in our work programme for the next 12 months.”
Murray admits being slightly surprised at how far Hearts have come in such little time. The playing, coaching and administrative staff have been overhauled, fans have rallied behind the new regime and the club are 20 points clear atop the Scottish Championship.
The Edinburgh MP cautioned that further planning and endeavour is vital to ensure Hearts never return to the chaotic state which saw them enter administration in June 2013 with debts nearing £30m.
“While no-one is getting over excited about the club’s progress, in the last 12 months we’ve got from the verge of not existing at all to the verge of returning to normality. It was right for the Foundation to persuade people that them owning Hearts would be the best way forward. Ann and her team have done a remarkable job.
“Most people say to me they just feel like they’ve got their club back. In that sense, normality has returned. The rebuilding allows supporters to feel they have their club back and that’s a major step forward. People feel Hearts is something they can be proud of and be part of again. I suppose total normality is playing at the top end of Scottish football, where the club deserves to be.
“The results have been fantastic and all credit to Robbie Neilson [head coach], Craig Levein and the players. It’s happened because everyone is pulling in the same direction. You see when the board, staff, coaches, management, players and fans all pull in one direction that something pretty special can happen. Hopefully this is only the start of a bright future.
“As Ann has consistently said, the club still requires a lot of rebuilding and a lot of financial support for that rebuilding. We’re a long way from saying this will never happen again, although the progress has been remarkable.”
For those still doutbful about the merits of fan ownership, Murray points to the power and strength of support harnessed by Hearts in their hour of need. Without 8,000 people committing monthly cash to the Foundation, Lithuanian administrators for bankrupt Ukio Bankas and Ukio Bankas Investment Group may not have agreed to sell their near-80 per cent shareholding in the club to Budge last June.
“We knew the only way we could persuade someone to put up the capital to get Hearts out of administration was to prove we had the revenues,” revealed Murray. “The only way could do that was to convince a very large chunk of the Hearts support to part with some cash every month through direct debits. The only way we could persuade Bryan Jackson [BDO administrator for Hearts] and the Lithuanians that they should give the club to Ann and the Foundation was because of that stability and ability to take the club forward.
“We had to show we were the best show in town to the Lithuanians and prove to Ann that we could afford to pay her back and keep the club on a stable financial footing while it’s being rebuilt.
“That said, I don’t think anybody two years ago would’ve thought we could get 8,000 people pledging every month and still be consistently collecting almost 100 per cent of those direct debits. The deal was £1m up front for immediate stability and to pay the costs of the administration, then £1.4m in the first year and again in the second. Then we start paying Ann’s £2.5m back.”