LIKE every other Tynecastle regular, Leslie Deans felt the strings on his heart tug harder than ever just after 4pm yesterday. An appeal by Hearts for “emergency backing” from fans to avoid going out of business was a new low in the roller-coaster tenure of Vladimir Romanov. The club’s former chairman felt almost sick to the pit of his stomach.
“It’s difficult to put into words how I feel,” said Deans. “Speaking as a lifelong supporter, I would be devastated if it was, as Hearts’ statement suggested, the club’s last ever game a week on Saturday. The thought of Hearts not being there is, quite frankly, just unbelievable.”
Unbelievable it may be but, according to the club, it is a realistic prospect. The emergence of a new tax bill of almost £450,000 – in addition to £1.75m which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs was already pursuing – has led to drastic measures. Yesterday’s announcement called on fans to rally and do whatever possible to help Hearts survive, with the purchasing of shares and match tickets being of utmost importance.
Deans was involved with a group of businessmen contemplating a buyout of Romanov, Hearts’ majority shareholder, earlier this year. Tentative talks were held involving the Edinburgh estate agent and several other potential investors, although discussions did not result in any kind of formal offer for Romanov’s shares. For the moment, Deans is still a mere supporter of the club he has followed since childhood.
The lack of investment and shortage of income leaves Hearts on the brink and Deans, along with thousands of other supporters, is, for the first time in his life, contemplating what life may be like without his club. The thought chills him to the core.
“We all knew money was very tight, we’ve had to cut back on players and we’ve seen people move on like Ian Black, Rudi Skacel, Craig Beattie and David Templeton,” he said. “We’ve seen the share issue launched giving the fans a chance to own part of the club and to bring about some much-needed revenue into the bargain. We knew times were difficult, but this illustrates exactly how difficult it is.”
Hearts’ survival would appear to depend on buying time with HMRC. “Let’s keep a cool head on this,” continued Deans. “The Inland Revenue is looking for somewhere in the region of £450,000 and is seeking a winding up order. Now, a winding up order takes time legally, although it won’t go on forever. So if Hearts can get the money in that time, any petition that goes to court can be dismissed and it would be business as usual.
“What Hearts are saying with the statement released yesterday is that it’s a timing issue. There are guaranteed future revenues from games and broadcast income from the Sky coverage of the Scottish Cup tie with Hibs at the beginning of next month. We have guaranteed transfer income to come, which I think is a reference to the outstanding balance for David Templeton.
“So with that money to come in, you would hope the Inland Revenue will be reasonable and give Hearts a bit of time and the money will be paid. I know the Inland Revenue may have a concern about football clubs, not unnaturally, but there is a difference between this situation and what happened to Rangers. At best, Rangers owed HMRC several million pounds. The amount in question at Hearts is half a million pounds and Hearts are saying they will pay if given time. The thought of Hearts being forced into administration, of penalties and points deductions . . . it could crucify the club.”
Although a staunch supporter of Romanov throughout the Russian entrepreneur’s seven-year association with Hearts, Deans acknowledged that much of the financial turmoil is of Hearts’ own making. Paying ridiculous wages to too many average players has been Romanov’s biggest crime, balanced against the fact he has kept the club playing at Tynecastle.
“It’s been a rollercoaster ride over the last seven years,” said Deans. “A lot of people have levelled criticism at Vladimir Romanov but the truth of the matter is that the total debt now (£24m) is only very slightly greater than it was when he took over. The reason for that is he has written off, or more accurately his bank has written off, millions of pounds of debt in recent years through debt forgiveness schemes.
“Romanov has provided a lot of highs for the Hearts support. We’ve had players like Takis Fyssas, Roman Bednar, Edgaras Jankauskas and Rudi Skacel that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. We’ve had two cup finals against Gretna and Hibs, the latter being possibly the most memorable result in the club’s history.
“There have been lots of highs but also lots of mistakes made. Money has been wasted. There have been over-rated and overpriced players who have come here. I’m thinking of Mauricio Pinilla, Mirsad Beslija, Larry Kingston to name but three. They might have had quality but they certainly never showed it on any consistent basis.
“I hope there is a way out of this but there is no getting away from it – these are extremely worrying times. I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t.”