DCSIMG

Top Scots businesswoman backs bid to turn Hearts into fan-owned club

Ann Budge

Ann Budge

  • by DAVID McCANN
 

ONE of Scotland’s top businesswomen has joined the consortium bidding to rescue Hearts and turn it into a fan-owned club.

Multi-millionaire IT guru Ann Budge has signed up with former Hearts striker Donald Ford and others as part of the Foundation of Hearts’ attempt to buy the Tynecastle club from Vladimir Romanov.

Today they vowed to come back with a fresh bid within days after Romanov rejected their initial offer.

A fresh bid by Foundation of Hearts may now include a lump sum payment to Romanov to assume control of the club, but supporter involvement in a

Barcelona-style membership scheme would remain central to its strategy going forward.

Hearts’ owners yesterday dismissed the initial offer, claiming it presented a “staggering misjudgment of the value of the club” and demonstrated a “worrying lack of understanding of the situation”.

“At best it is opportunistic, an attempt to exploit what is a difficult financial situation at the club,” a statement read.

But a spokesman for the consortium – which includes legendary Hearts striker Donald Ford as well as Ann Budge – said they had already requested further talks with the club hierarchy.

Ms Budge made a personal fortune of £40m in 2005 when she sold the IT company she founded 20 years earlier for £70m.

Securing the support of the wealthy former Scottish & Newcastle IT manager is a coup for the consortium. She is not understood to be investing any capital in the bid at this stage, but will lend great business acumen and contacts.

Plans for a renewed proposal came against a hectic 90 minutes of drama yesterday during which:

n Hearts rejected the initial bid – exclusively revealed by the Evening News;

n Fans celebrated news that the club had been granted a stay of execution from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which is pursuing a £450,000 unpaid tax bill;

n A final settlement date for the bill has now been set for December 3, provided tax

payments in November and December are on time;

n Hearts-supporting First Minister Alex Salmond personally met with club delegates to discuss a repayment lifeline.

The Hearts board rejected yesterday’s bid – which offered to pay off a £450,000 unpaid tax bill in return for control over a debt-free Hearts – but reiterated its intention to consider a supporter-led takeover.

Talks are now likely to progress through Supporters Direct, a government-backed body to promote fan ownership of football clubs, which is understood to be working closely with Foundation of Hearts Ltd.

A consortium spokesman said: “We see this as the beginning, not the end, and want to keep negotiations going which have always been constructive and amicable. It’s a huge challenge to bridge the gap [between the club’s own valuation and an equitable offer] but we would like to get some feedback from them other than the position they have taken today. We’ll bounce back from this.”

Asked if the challenges blocking a deal could be resolved, he said: “We don’t know, but the state the club is in at the moment we have to try. It doesn’t look like there are other options and we think we are the best option.

“We are not dismayed by today’s events and are looking forward. We have been out to Lithuania in the past to move this along, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to do that again. We are committed to this.

“If the club is looking for big money, I don’t think that would be acceptable to fans. What a fantastic thing it would be for Vladimir Romanov to walk away leaving the club debt-free and leaving that legacy. Whether he would do that or not would be up to him, but we would encourage that.”

It is understood that if Mr Romanov decided to walk away now it could trigger a “transition period” where untapped revenue streams would be explored by the new club owners in a bid to generate working capital. It is possible that loans could be provided by wealthy consortium members as a stop-gap to keep the club afloat if cashflow became stymied.

The bulk of finance, however, would be generated through a fan membership scheme with the intention that supporter representatives would take up seats on the board in March.

Today, Alex Mackie – the consortium director spearheading negotiations – revealed they had been in talks with Hearts for the last 18 months and the Gorgie club had already rejected their three previous bids.

He said: “The principal aim of the foundation is to acquire Tynecastle Stadium, the Heart of Midlothian brand, and the football rights of HMFC, debt-free and liability-free, for the long-term benefit of Heart of Midlothian and its fans. We also aim to stabilise the club financially, but this is a huge challenge and one which can only be achieved if the fans give it their long-term backing.

“We have examined rigorously the financial situation of the club and what it will take to move the club forward, and we have to make it absolutely clear that the future of Hearts depends on the fans making appropriate financial

contributions.

“There is no ‘white knight’ in the foundation’s proposition. It is all down to us, the fans. If Scottish football is to flourish in the future, a new operating model needs to be found and the foundation is keen to prove that fan-supported ownership can succeed in Scotland.

“The foundation will shortly publish full details of our plans and how fan ownership can be delivered. We repeat, however, that this transition will only happen if the fans themselves want it to happen.

“Quite simply, it is now fan ownership or nothing, and we are totally committed to try to deliver that. The fans and this great club deserve nothing less.”

In a statement, Hearts director Sergejus Fedotovas said: “When we move the club on, it will be to the right people at the right time. With this in mind, we have held positive initial discussions with Supporters Direct and we have asked this organisation for further talks on how we might be able to structure an appropriate supporter led buyout of the club.

“At present, we will continue these talks with Supporters Direct in parallel with maintaining the momentum that is gathering behind the club’s share issue and other fundraising activities.

“Together the staff, players, supporters, club partners and political and community groups are already making their mark on the club.

“With their continued support we do believe we can steer through the current financial challenges we face.”

Former Hearts chairman Lord Foulkes said Mr Romanov was “not as rich as he used to be” and his companies were “experiencing difficulties” which added a new dimension to a possible takeover.

“I hope he will stand by his promise that he wants to hand over the club in a good state and not allow it to go into receivership or liquidation. That would not be in his interest, nor that of the fans or creditors.”

Football finance expert Neil Patey, of Ernst & Young, said Mr Romanov had demonstrated his reluctance to accept taking a significant financial “hit” on Hearts after failing to accept Rangers’ £500,000 repayment offer for Lee Wallace and David Templeton which could have settled the HMRC tax bill.

“Romanov has been pretty clear that he does not want to bankroll the club any longer,” said Mr Patey. “He had been putting in around £8 million a year but has now stopped. If he was willing to take another hit I believe he would have accepted the £500,000 offered by Rangers.

“The secondary factor in all of this is Mr Romanov’s valuation. Over a year ago he claimed it was worth £50m – there is now no way the club’s worth that. So it’s a case of how much his valuation has dropped.”

Auction raises £20k

FANS have turned out in their droves to raise more than £20,000 at a fundraising auction and raffle event for the cash-strapped club.

Hundreds packed the Gorgie Suite to bid on a host of items donated by players, past and present, and celebrity fans.

A signed London 2012 Team GB long-sleeved shirt donated by Sir Chris Hoy raised £500 while an official Scottish Cup Final 2012 shirt belonging to Marius Zaliukas fetched more than £1000.

More than £15,000 was raised through the event whist a further £5000 was donated by fans attending the under-20s game.

In a strange twist of fate numerous items bidded for on the night reached a figure ending in 51p and applause greeted the news the club have been given until December 3 to pay their outstanding tax bill.

A second auction is to take place in the Gorgie Suite on Sunday at which more Olympic items, donated by athlete and former Edinburgh University student Eilidh Child, pictured, will be available.

She said: “My dad was a Hearts supporter and brought up my family as Hearts fans. You want to do your part.”

WHAT HEARTS MEAN TO ME

DEVOTED Jambo Christopher Hartles, 22, has held a season ticket at Tynecastle for the last eight years and attended his first Hearts match aged just two.

The mortgage analyst and musician, who lives in Canongate, currently sits in the Main Stand.

“The big moments for me have been the European trips. My first one was to Paks, in Hungary, when I drove in a two-seater Toyota the whole way there. We soon found Hearts fans and experienced that community feeling.

“When I go to the games, I just get that warm feeling with all the fans having a good time. Hearts supporters have been through quite a lot in the last five or six years – good and bad. The period when we didn’t know who the manager was and the Stephen Frail period, but you come out of it. You have really special moments that you will never forget – obviously the cup finals.

“Recent days have been really special. George Foulkes commented that social media had been a real help spreading the word. If it wasn’t for social media, events like the Brauhaus pub donating a day’s taking to the club wouldn’t have

happened.”

 

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