Andrew McKinlay reveals how many fans Hearts expect back at Tynecastle and explains FoH handover plan
Ambitions for the next six months at Tynecastle Park are fairly clear: a strong start to the new season, a more youthful Hearts first team, plus the return of fans.
Just how many supporters will watch their team is the ambiguous part. Chief executive Andrew McKinlay’s agenda is full, but there is no more important issue than welcoming people back to Tynecastle.
“We all want to have the place bouncing again.” McKinlay’s words are echoed by football officials around the globe after more than a year of empty grounds.
This month, European Championship matches at Hampden Park in Glasgow are allowed crowds of 12,000, while 16,500 supporters will attend the British & Irish Lions rugby international against Japan at Edinburgh’s BT Murrayfield.
Both events will be watched keenly by McKinlay and the Hearts hierarchy. They hope for parity from the Scottish Government when domestic football resumes in July. Tynecastle at 25 per cent full would be a step in the right direction.
“We want a good start in the Premier Sports Cup,” said McKinlay in part two of an exclusive Evening News interview. “Peterhead away won't be straightforward but we hope to do well. The Premiership fixtures are out soon and we want a good start there as well to give ourselves a foundation to build on.
“Off the pitch, we have done a bit of work around the stadium. There are new floodlights, the pitch has been redone, trusses painted. That's all leading, hopefully, to getting fans back in. We all want that as soon as we can.
About 3,500 fans
“The Euros at Hampden and the Lions rugby game at Murrayfield will be really interested. Both those grounds will be a quarter full and that's significant. If we go down to Level 0 in Edinburgh, I think we would be looking at about 3,500 fans.
“It will be interesting to see what those grounds do because we would expect to be getting as good as them proportionately.
“Hopefully we are on the way out of the pandemic now that many of us have been vaccinated. If there is a third wave, we hope it won't be the same and we can get back to a bit of normality with all our season ticket holders inside Tynecastle.
“That's the first priority, then other people after that. We all want to have the place bouncing again. That will be a big thing over the next few months but it's out of our hands. It's all down to how the pandemic progresses.”
Whoever gains entry should anticipate watching a more youthful and zestful Hearts side than last season. New signings will arrive but Robbie Neilson’s first-team squad will be smaller and supplemented by young players for the Premiership return.
“That's definitely the plan,” said McKinlay. “Everyone knows there has been huge turnover of players in recent years here. The unfortunate thing with that is you don't always lose as many as you bring in, so you end up with a very big squad.
“When myself and Robbie came in last year, we knew we had to cut that down. We've done that. Like all clubs, we're really keen to bring youth players through and we saw a bit of that towards the end of last season. I hope we see more.
“We need to get the balance right. Young players need to be ready to step in so we don't throw them in at the deep end. All clubs want to develop young players and fans give the youngsters more leeway than other players.
Sell for decent money
“We are like all other clubs in Scotland. You want to bring through young players, nurture them and hope they are a success for you. Then you can sell them on for a decent amount of money once you've had a bit of time out of them.
“Getting that model to work can be a challenge. The one guy making the decisions with all the pressure on him is the manager. That's always the issue. We all want more young players but the manager is under pressure to get results.
“It's important to us as a board to support the manager in those areas. We're never going to pick the team or influence it at all, but you need to support him and not turn on him if he is trying to develop young players.
“We have some good players coming through the Hearts academy. That age from 16, when they sign the first contract, it's whether they are going to get into the first team. That's the difficult period for young footballers.”
Another key issue interesting fans is the forthcoming change of ownership at Hearts. Ann Budge is due to pass her 75.1 per cent shareholding to Foundation of Hearts this summer. They will then own the club on behalf of supporters.
The internal structure will not alter and it will remain business as usual. McKinlay will continue as chief executive, Budge will chair the club’s board, on which two Foundation directors sit – Stuart Wallace and Donald Cumming.
“The running of the club will remain exactly as it is at the moment,” explained McKinlay. “The big message is that fan-owned and fan-run are two very different things. I get on very well with the FoH directors and I'm keen to continue that.
“On the day of my interview [for Hearts CEO job] I was asked by one of the FoH directors on the panel about the whole fan ownership model. I think it's a very positive thing for any club. The main thing is to make sure the club is properly run and doesn't end up in a bad place in future.
“It's about protecting the club, it's not really about the running of it. That's a crucial part that everyone needs to understand.”