START John Robertson talking on the future of Heart of Midlothian and it’s difficult to stop him. Passion courses through his veins as he, like every other supporter, ruminates on how to move on from the Vladimir Romanov era.
A millionaire investor would be ideal, but remains unlikely. Several consortia reported to be interested have stayed on the periphery. That leaves fan ownership – a prospect which prompts only cautious optimism from Robertson.
Hearts’ record goalscorer is conscious of not getting carried away. In the second of a two-part Evening News interview, he implored fans to attend Tynecastle in numbers for both home fixtures after the SPL split. In his own words, every penny remains a prisoner as the club attempts to become self-sufficient by cutting wages and drawing up sensible budget plans. Getting through to the end of the season should not be taken for granted.
Thereafter, who knows? Romanov wants to offload his majority shareholding, but cannot do so for a variety of issues surrounding his ownership. The collapse of Ukio Bankas, debt approaching £25 million and the Russian’s refusal to place even a rough value on his shares make it impossible for anyone to cut a deal. The situation frustrates Robertson as much as any Hearts supporter.
Fans’ groups are waiting in the wings, meeting regularly with Supporters Direct Scotland and formulating plans to step in and take over. Foundation of Hearts released a statement this week outlining their plans to run the club, including assembling a nine-man board and appointing a new chief executive and manager. Whilst pleased there is such strong movement and will to pick up the mess created by Romanov’s weave of companies and investment groups, Robertson is asking the same questions as many other Hearts followers.
“I’ve still got to be 100 per cent convinced about fan ownership,” he said. “I think the biggest club in Britain to do it so far is Dundee, and we all saw the furore there when the board that has been put in charge for three years decided to sack Barry Smith and replace him with John Brown. They were accused of not taking all the fans’ views on board.
“That makes you wonder how it would work at Hearts. There are about 200,000 to 250,000 Hearts fans altogether. How do you get all their ideas together? You just need to run it like a board and hope you do the right things to get re-elected. That’s my worry. This scheme hasn’t been run by any huge clubs. It’s probably fear of the unknown, to a certain extent. I know it will be a CIC (Community Interest Company), which means all profit goes back into the company and that is certainly a very good idea. I think the fact Vladimir Romanov is showing an appetite to let fans have a major say in the running of the club is admirable. Really, it’s the least he could’ve done after the tremendous efforts of supporters to raise £1.1m through the share issue, plus other monies via merchandise, ticket sales and other things.”
Despite his reservations, Robertson is a realist. He acknowledges that alternatives to fan ownership are few and far between. “Is somebody going to come in with a cheque for £5m to £10m? It’s highly unlikely. The one thing that probably frustrates potential investors out there is Vladimir Romanov has never come up with a price he’d be happy with to sell the club. Also, due to the collapse of Ukio Bankas, people can’t invest because we don’t know who owns the debt, where the debt is or who it’s payable to. There are meetings going on trying to take the club forward but, until these things are sorted out, there are still key questions that need to be addressed.
“The uncertainty makes it more difficult for outside investors or consortia to invest. If you wanted to do due diligence on Hearts right now, it would be very near impossible because of the situation in Lithuania. It appears that the CIC would be the best vehicle going forward to get the club running well.
“Vladimir Romanov said last week that he still has an appetite to sell 51 per cent of the club to supporters. It may not happen quickly, but you look at that as the best way forward. Everybody has the bones of the deal, it’s just how to put the meat on it. Who would the board be? Who would be running Hearts? Who would make the decisions? What input would the fans have? Who would be the spokesperson for them? I know Supporters Direct have been championing the CIC route that German clubs took but there were major benefits for German clubs doing that and their government helped out a fair bit.”
This season alone acts as a prime example of why Hearts must make fiscal prudence their first priority in future. The club’s debt, though, will not be easily erased. Romanov is unlikely to simply write it off as a goodwill gesture to any new owners, be they fans, businessmen or both. Robertson wants to see the next Tynecastle board manage money sensibly, spend only within their means and generally be a “safe pair of hands”.
“If there was a perfect wish-list, I’d love to see Hearts debt free,” he continued. “They have a very good turnover and can have a good budget, but I’d love them to be debt free. I can’t see that happening, obviously. Hearts were £22m-£24m in debt when Vladimir Romanov got control of the club from Chris Robinson. Now we’re back to that figure again.
“There was a lot of money wasted on big salaries after the 1998 Scottish Cup win. With the Bosman ruling, I think a lot of clubs misread how that situation was going to work. That and the stadium is where the historical debt came from under the Robinson regime. It’s never gone away.
“If Vladimir Romanov has spent £60m of his own money at Hearts in the last nine years, then if £24m of it had gone to paying off the debt the club would be in a far better position. That might have been better than paying exuberant salaries to try and get into the upper echelons of European football.
“For the future, Hearts must work with a sensible budget related to their turnover. Make sure the club is always going to be there, that’s the important thing. The dream scenario would be a debt-free club with a new main stand on McLeod Street and work from there. First and foremost, we need a safe pair of hands guiding the club. There will be budget constraints, but it’s still a very healthy budget.
“We need the club here in five years’ time. All Scottish football clubs are going through a tough time right now, not only Hearts. We’re talking about restructuring the game but we need to get it right. Hearts are a big player along with the likes of Hibs, Aberdeen, Dundee United and the Old Firm. I want to see all Scottish clubs in a very healthy and profitable state.”
Supporters can contribute immediately by attending home matches for the rest of the season. Robertson explained why keeping crowds high is vital. “It’s very important to keep the crowds above the 10,000 mark after the split. Every penny is a prisoner. As little as an extra thousand people on the gate is worth between £18,000 and £20,000 to the club. It’s just one last push to make sure everything is okay.
“Everyone is due a huge thanks for helping the club get to the end of the season. If it weren’t for the fans at this football club, there would be no Heart of Midlothian.”