Frustration is etched across Gary Locke’s face, however hard he tries to hide it.
The Hearts manager is irked at the time being taken for his club to exit administration and the knock-on effect it is having. Contracts and futures, including Locke’s, are uncertain until the financial situation at Tynecastle is clarified and the club assumes new ownership.
Locke is standing in the foyer of Hearts’ Riccarton training base, typically trying to stay upbeat despite the protracted process. Uncertainty has been part of his daily working life since administration took hold last June and he is not the only one eager to see it end. Ann Budge, the prospective new owner, is also keen to complete the takeover deal that will herald a new era in Gorgie and finally rid Hearts of all Lithuanian connections.
For now, all concerned must wait on creditors at bankrupt Ukio Bankas Investment Group in Lithuania voting on transferring almost 80 per cent of Hearts shares to Budge’s holding company, BIDCO. That vote is expected to happen next Friday at a creditors’ meeting. Should it go well, a Creditors’ Voluntary Agreement (CVA) can then be completed over the coming weeks to let the club exit administration.
“I hope it does happen before the end of the season. In terms of planning for next season and from the supporters’ point of view it would be great to get everything sorted out. That’s not really a question I can answer because it’s outwith our hands,” explains Locke. “I’m not silly because I’ve dealt with people in Lithuania myself here at the club; now they’re dealing with the administrators so I know it’s not going to be straightforward. It’s frustrating for everyone because all we want is to get things moving and get things done.
“It’s frustrating from my point of view, it’s frustrating for people who work behind the scenes at the club, it’s frustrating for Ann no doubt, but there’s not a great deal we can do about it. We’ve just got to wait.
“It’s hard for some of the players as well because everybody just wants to get their future sorted out. We all understand the situation and it’s just something we’ve got to deal with. It’s been a long, hard season for us, both physically and mentally. We would all just love a bit of clarity.
“It would be great for everyone who works here, staff and players. It’s been tough for the supporters as well and it would be great just to get answers. Hopefully that will come sooner rather than later.”
What is clear is that the next month is critical to Hearts’ future. Almost every manager interviewed gives the statutory claim that what happens on the football field is the most important aspect of any club. At Riccarton, for the moment anyway, it is the opposite.
“The most important thing is what happens off the pitch,” continues Locke. “As a football club, we still aren’t out of the woods. The most important thing is the club is here and survives. I think the next month is crucial in terms of that.
“Hopefully, if all goes according to plan, we can start looking to rebuild the team.
“We’ll keep our fingers crossed everything goes well in Lithuania, but the club has to rebuild again. Over the last couple of years we’ve lost a lot of fantastic players. This year we’ve had to play a lot of young lads. It’s been testament to them how we’ll they’ve done because I think they’ve all improved. The club does have a fantastic future but the most important battle we face is off the pitch at the moment.”
In his first job as manager, Locke has coped with an overwhelming burden including a 15-point deduction and signing embargo because of administration. He has also found himself managing what is in effect an under-21 team and trying to nurture youngsters amidst the pressures of a relegation battle. His craving for a fresh start would seem perfectly natural.
“I’ve said to the players that it’s not something we can influence,” he continued. “We’ve just got to try and concentrate on the football side of things, which has been difficult as well. I’m not going to make any excuses because that’s not in my nature. We just need to try and do our best in the next two games, which are both at home. It’s important we put in two really good performances and try to get two good results.”
Another concern is whether the many Hearts players nearing the end of their contracts could be lured away whilst the Edinburgh club remain in limbo.
Locke isn’t naive enough to think people aren’t looking but is confident most of his squad intend to stay put. “A lot of clubs are represented at our games,” he continued. “Sam Nicholson has done really well in the last couple of months, as has Dale Carrick. There’s no doubt these players will attract interest.
“I’ve no doubt other teams will be interested in the experienced players as well. It shows the mark of all our players that they’re really focused on the job at hand. Speaking to the majority of them, they’re all willing to wait and see what happens here. That shows most of them really want to be here.
“It’s very encouraging because a lot of them are in the same boat. They want to get their futures secured. You saw last summer the sacrifices a lot of them made to be here, so they’ve shown they want to play for Heart of Midlothian.
“I think we still have lots to play for between now and the end of the season. I feel the young boys are getting better so it’s important they keep improving between now and the end of the season. Given the backing we’ve had from the fans all season, it’s important we go out and put on a show for them. That’s the least they deserve.”