Big interview: Ian Murray MP on battle to save Hearts, Hibs fans’ emails to Lithuania and his all-nighters
Fighting Hibs fans. Fighting Lithuanians. Fighting taxmen. Fighting administrators. Fighting a ticking clock. Ian Murray could write several books about battling to save Hearts from liquidation. He has managed to squeeze all the drama into one.
This Is Our Story: How The Fans Kept Their Hearts Beating is written from a fan’s perspective by Edinburgh South’s Labour MP who refused to watch his club die.
Murray details his role as Foundation of Hearts chairman in 2013 and 2014 trying to rescue an institution loved by his family and thousands of others for generations. One which former owner Vladimir Romanov and his shameless associates had abandoned and left to die. The task brought unique pressure, entirely different from Brexit, rebuilding Scottish Labour or questioning the Prime Minister in Parliament.
From meddling Hibs fans to obstructive Eastern Europeans, Murray fought through more red tape than Santa Claus along with the administrator in charge at Hearts, Bryan Jackson. Finally, in May 2014, a CVA was signed off to get 80 per cent of club shares transferred from defunct Lithuanian companies Ukio Bankas and Ukio Bankas Investment Group to new owner Ann Budge. She was backed by the Foundation and its 8,000 members who had raised every penny to save their club.
Murray spoke exclusively to the Evening News about his efforts and the obstructions he encountered. “I first got involved in the club’s tax case back in November 2012,” he said. “Hearts had launched a share issue, which was essentially about stabilising things and investing in youth, but everybody knew it was about saving the club. Then the bombshell hit that there was no more money available.
“The St Mirren game that November was going to be their last game. I was asked if I could intervene and help with the tax bill [of £450,000] to take the pressure off and help the club get a bit more time.
“Romanov and the Lithuanians were gone by that point. They had given up on holding the club together, they had given up on funding it because they had no money to fund it. It was really just the staff, mainly through David Southern, trying to do something to save it.”
Murray approached one of his Westminster colleagues, David Gauke MP, the government’s treasury secretary at the time. “I knew him relatively well having done a couple of finance bills with him. I phoned him up to see if I could speak to someone about just not closing Hearts down with the winding-up order. He put me in touch with the guys at HMRC. We had a long chat about what needed to be done. They needed Hearts to pay this bill or agree to a sensible short-term payment plan.
“HMRC had been hit by the financial crisis and been messed about by the footballing sector for 20 years. HMRC had reached the end of their tether. They could have closed Hearts down at any moment. Without the share issue and fans raising money, there could have been a real problem.”
That threat staved off, bigger ones lay in wait. Murray became FoH chairman in 2013 just prior to Hearts entering administration with debts approaching £30m. “Lawrence Broadie [FoH advisor] got in touch with me one evening. He has a great skill of bouncing people into doing things. If I think back, although I was hesitant but delighted to do it, he did bounce me into it.”
Whilst attending to his day job, Murray now had the burden of uniting various Hearts fan groups, talking to administrators and persuading Hibs fans and others that his political duties remained priority.
“There was a huge balance I had to strike. The two most emotive things in the country at the time were politics and football. Being involved in both was quite a cocktail. It was a huge risk but we just had to take it on. Hearts were in severe trouble and could have gone to the wall, no doubt about that. I was asked to help and I was delighted to do so.
“I did get some Hibs fans turning up at my advice sessions, writing to me and emailing me. There was a group of people out there who were vociferous in their opposition to me doing any of this. I’m not sure if it was other political parties who were upset, genuinely concerned constituents, or other supporters who wanted Hearts to suffer a bit. Probably a combination of Hibs fans and supporters of other political parties. They certainly weren’t on my side in footballing or political terms, let’s put it that way.”
His professionalism cannot be questioned. However, Murray does not deny the emotional ties pulling from within.
“My father was a tremendous Hearts fan. You had to be a Hearts fan to be a member of the Murray family or you would have been excommunicated out the door. He passed away in January 1986 at just 39, so he didn’t even see the conclusion of the 1986 season. There is the emotion of someone asking you to save your family’s football club. I asked myself: ‘What would Dad have done?’ What would I do if Hearts went under and I didn’t try to help?
“The emotional attachment was huge. I didn’t realise the gravity of the situation we had taken on. We had a wonderful team and board of directors at Foundation of Hearts, we had a really supportive staff team at Tynecastle, we had a great support team of advisors helping Foundation of Hearts – but really a lot of this fell on my shoulders.
“I was in the public eye, front and centre of it all. The gravity of that only really hit home when the proverbial was hitting the fan. I didn’t want to be holding the baby when Hearts died. I took on the responsibility of trying to save the club and the book wrestles with everything going on. We had a sole focus of doing simple things well to make sure the club was saved.”
As time ticked on, Lithuanian administrators winding up Ukio and UBIG continued dragging their heels. “The chances of Hearts collapsing completely became greater as we neared the point of concluding the CVA deal,” explained Murray. “Every time we got near the finishing line, the finishing line got moved by the Lithuanians. There was no rhyme or reason as to why they didn’t conclude the deal. The CVA was done in December 2013 and it was May 2014 before everything was signed, sealed and delivered.
“We were all just banging our heads against a wall for those five months. Other facts didn’t help, like rival fans writing to the president of Lithuania, bids for the club being sent my email to the Lithuanian authorities by all sorts of people, things like that. It did get very precarious. Even the night before we signed the documents, there was concern that the Lithuanians wouldn’t come through with the shares.”
Foundation directors often found themselves pulling all-nighters. “There were a lot of through-the-nighters to get stuff done. That’s the climax of the book, so I don’t want to speak too much about it.”
He is happy to discuss the “champagne moment” after the CVA was finally agreed, which preserved Hearts’ history and created a path to fan ownership. “It was a massive anticlimax for me,” revealed Murray. “Everything was signed, sealed and delivered, Ann and her team whisked away to Tynecastle to see Bryan Jackson off the premises in a nice way. I went to do an advice session in my constituency office, as I do every Friday. It was packed with non-football issues. I didn’t take a breath until later that afternoon, when I got a call saying all the documents had landed and been verified.
“That evening, I was on a team for a sportsman’s quiz at Tynecastle. The theme was Hearts versus the rest of the world. That’s where we celebrated getting the deal done, even though the formal court process of exiting administration didn’t happen until June.”
Ultimately, he had to resign from FoH partly due to political pressure. The 2015 general election left him as the only Scottish Labour MP. “I had to take on the role of Shadow Secretary of State and was delighted to do so. Plus, the responsibility of rebuilding the Labour Party in Scotland was upon my shoulders, but it was also becoming a bit difficult politically.
“I’d gone from just being a Labour MP with 41 colleagues to being on my own, so my profile shot through the roof. It was starting to create trouble. Some people were cancelling their direct debit to the Foundation and emailing Hearts saying they wouldn’t be back while I was still involved. I took the decision to resign. I probably didn’t have the spare time to do the role justice in any case.”
He stepped down knowing his place in Tynecastle Park’s annals is secure for eternity. One of Murray’s hardest tasks of the whole process was uniting various different Hearts fan groups and bringing them all under the FoH umbrella.
“It was hugely difficult because there were ten or 11 totally different personalities sitting round the table. The fans’ groups were representing different organisations with different purposes. For example, the Federation of Hearts Supporters’ Clubs has a totally different remit to the Hearts Youth Development Committee. The majority of fans weren’t a member of any of these organisations, so they weren’t being represented at all but it was all we had.
“Then there was tension because I was brought in to wipe the slate clean and effectively start from scratch. The resentment from the founding directors of FoH was palpable. That almost brought the whole thing to its knees.”
• This Is Our Story: How The Fans Kept Their Hearts Beating by Ian Murray MP is published by Luath Press and is available from 9am tomorrow via www.heartsfc.co.uk or from the club shop where Ian will be signing copies before and after the Kilmarnock match on Saturday. For pre-orders visit www.thisisourstory.club.