Andrew McKinlay reveals Hearts' contract with James Anderson, new sponsor and views on playing style

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The chief executive addressed a number of issues in a wide-ranging interview

After answering a range of questions at Hearts' AGM on Thursday, the club's chief executive Andrew McKinlay sat down to dissect some of the matters raised by shareholders. From the team's playing style to a contractual agreement with millionaire benefactor James Anderson, McKinlay candidly revealed his thoughts on what goes on inside Tynecastle Park.

A new commercial sponsor will adorn the front of Hearts men's and women's shirts from next season, and McKinlay is also trying to extend contracts of a number of first-team men. If Christmas is a busy time generally, it is evermore frantic when you are responsible for the day-to-day running of one of Scotland's biggest football clubs.

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Many supporters are frustrated by an often-passive playing style under head coach Steven Naismith. McKinlay acknowledged that Naismith was given the manager's job permanently after instilling an attacking brand of football as interim coach towards the end of last season. From then to now, there has been a change to more pedestrian playing patterns despite efforts to the contrary.

"I totally understand that. That style was a big factor in Steven being considered for the job full-time," said McKinlay. "I suspect Steven is probably at a loss as to why we are not able to replicate that, but he will speak for himself. First and foremost, it's a results business, so it's about getting results and getting us high up that league. It's absolutely important how we play but it's secondary to the results.

"We are all on the same page at this club, including Steven. We know we need to play better in an offensive manner. I think we do sometimes forget that football is about offence and defence. Defensively, we have tightened up this year. We have been good. I'm not saying we haven't made mistakes but we have been strong there.

"It's almost been like: 'Oh well, you've done that, it's irrelevant, you're rubbish going forward.' We know we need to get better going forward. Actually, if we just got a little bit better going forward, I think we would be in a really good place."

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Hearts initially appointed Frankie McAvoy head coach in June and gave Naismith the title of technical director. This was to comply with UEFA rules which state a head coach must hold a Pro-Licence for European competition. McAvoy has that qualification whilst Naismith does not, but Naismith then took the head coach title in September after the club's elimination from the Europa Conference League play-off. McAvoy reverted to assistant coach.

McKinlay explained that he could not understand people questioning the move to begin with. "I think I used the word earlier disingenuous. I found it utterly disingenuous the bemusement outside the club. Everyone was fully aware of what was going on and chose not to interpret it in the way it was. That is my view on that. 

"We knew when we did it that if results did not go it would be used as a stick to beat us, and it was. We knew that but we had briefings, we had people ask us questions, we told them what the story was, but certain individuals chose to ask questions which they knew the answers to. They knew they were putting individuals into very difficult situations with those questions."

McKinlay is currently working to agree new contracts with players whose deals expire next summer. They include goalkeeper Craig Gordon, defender Craig Halkett and midfielder Beni Baningime. "I would be hopeful they will [sign]. But it is interesting, there’s divided views on those players," he stated. "I might be able to do a deal with Beni and or Craig [Halkett] in the summer, but some of the fanbase might say: 'But they have been injured, they have been this and they have been that.'

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"We would not have offered them contracts if we did not believe they had something to offer beyond this season. We have offered them contracts and it is not uncommon for players to take time to consider their options."

Sitting near McKinlay at the top table during the AGM was Anderson, Hearts' principal benefactor and a non-executive director. Benefactors combined have donated more than £25m to the Edinburgh club since 2017, and Anderson is responsible for the greatest chunk of that. McKinlay divulged that there is a contract in place with the Edinburgh businessman going forward. 

"We have a contractual commitment from him. I can’t go into the details of that for obvious reasons," he remarked. "James is very much committed to the longer term of Hearts. I think he said in an interview recently that he wants to see stability. He does not want to see managers changing every six months, or every three months or whatever. We have seen that at some other clubs.

"I saw some numbers recently about the number of games that managers have had at some of our rivals. We do not want to be in that situation. He is here for the long term. James has been here from day one. He likes Hearts, he likes what we do. We talk a lot about the community work but, yes, he wants to see a successful team and he is very keen to see us bring through more players from the academy. That is a huge thing for him.

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"He does a lot of studying on European-based teams, he is very knowledgeable on European football. I am not sure I know anyone with his inside knowledge on certain clubs and certain models at certain clubs. He also has an 'in' into certain clubs in Europe, which we will tap into as appropriate to help look at some of those models. Replicating those models is easier said than done.

"Queen's Park are on record as saying they want to do something similar to what AZ Alkmaar have done. Ever since I was a boy I have heard people talk about picking up the Ajax training-ground formula, and I do not think anyone has managed to do it. It's one thing saying it, another thing achieving it. We are on the same page as James. We all want to see that academy bringing through a conveyor belt of players. We need to be better at that."

Hearts will earn more income from a new commercial sponsor from next year as they move away from their partnership with the charity MND Scotland. There is no prospect of any cryptocurrency, gambling or alcohol company adorning the famous maroon shirts.

"It is going to be more traditional but something that fits in with our values," stressed McKinlay. "We are going down a slightly different route. I don't think any sponsorships any more are 'write us a cheque and we'll give you a bit of LED'.

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"I touched upon it early on, what you do in the community, what you do as a club, the culture of the club, having a women's team, these are all massively important things for sponsors. There are a lot of sponsors like what Hearts do in the community, the fact we do look at other things, not just the men's first-team which means we get other sponsors in. At the end of the day, the highest profile is being on the front of the shirt. This will be for both the men's and women's teams, they will have the same sponsor."

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