Hearts AGM: Lawrence Shankland to Rangers addressed as Joe Savage answers signing criticism

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Shareholders put their questions to Ann Budge and her board inside the Gorgie Suite

Hearts held their AGM this morning as a number of supporters and shareholders fired some pertinent questions at directors. Sporting director Joe Savage was criticised over player signings, west-coast referees were also under fire. Predictably, people wanted to know if top goalscorer Lawrence Shankland would be sold to Rangers in January as rumours have intimated.

First, there was club business to deal with. Around 400 shareholders gathered in Tynecastle Park's Gorgie Suite to attend the 117th Hearts AGM. Record turnover of £20.8m was announced recently and chairwoman Ann Budge told this morning's meeting that a new director is joining the club's board. Andrew Brown will replace Donald Cumming as the second Foundation of Hearts director, with Cumming stepping down after nine years' service in the Tynecastle boardroom. Gerry Mallon, FoH chairman, continues in his role as one of Budge's directors.

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The club's chief executive, Andrew McKinlay, spoke at length about various footballing matters. He stressed that Steven Naismith's permanent appointment as head coach came after a number of candidates were sounded out, and that Naismith was the best option available. "There was not another immediately available option which was definitely less risky and more attractive," stated McKinlay.

He insisted there was "absolutely no confusion within the club" when Frankie McAvoy was initially named head coach whilst Hearts were in Europe, with Naismith then resuming the title in September. This was down to the fact that McAvoy holds the required UEFA Pro-Licence for European competition, whilst Naismith does not.

McKinlay added that Hearts had rejected several offers for players because they did not meet the club's value, and then addressed this season's performances at length. "Despite suggestions that we as a board do not give enough importance to football outcomes, I and we are in absolutely no doubt that the results and performances of the men's first team are fundamentally important to everything we do as a club," he said. "There is no doubt we all want the men's first team to be successful and we will continue to work as hard as possible to achieve that aim.

"It is clear that we had a difficult start to the season as we once again tried to juggle domestic and Europe. Following defeat against Motherwell on Sunday, 3 September - the last time we had to go Thursday-Sunday for Europe - we went on a good run which saw us only lose to Rangers and Celtic until our defeat last weekend at Pittodrie. We have already won more away league games than we did in the whole of last season but our home form has not been what we would expect.

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"As we speak, we are sixth in the league with a game in hand against Dundee at home which, if we win, would take us third. We have won points less than we did after 16 games last season. After what will be a difficult game at the weekend, we have a run of games before and after the Christmas break where I believe we have a good opportunity to do well. It does give us an opportunity to be where we want to be and believe we should be in the league - but we will need to take that opportunity.

"Please don't think for one minute that I'm saying all is good and that I am enjoying watching many of our games. Rest assured that I and other members of the board watch the same football everyone else does and are aware of pluses and minuses from each and every performance. I sat through the second half at Aberdeen and also the three hours with my own thoughts in the car in the awful weather driving down the road. I share the frustrations following that game. Indeed, my wife and daughter will tell you I have hardly talked since then.

"However, I believe we can turn the corner and put is some better performances. I sincerely hope the fans can get behind the team, especially at home, as we go into this next set of fixtures. I know it's difficult sometimes to get excited and positive when you aren't feeling that the football is good enough. If we can support the team positively, I'm sure it will help as they look to win some games with some added style and some more goals."

Budge retook the floor to explain the benefits of the new Tynecastle Park Hotel, which will open on the second floor of the stadium's main stand. It is expected to generate more than £1m in additional income in its first five months. "Next year, that figure will be substantially greater," added Budge. She also outlined a number of different plans to celebrate Hearts' 150th anniversary next year, including a friendly against Leyton Orient scheduled for July 2024. In addition, there will be a new commercial shirt sponsor to replace the charity MND Scotland and bring in extra revenue for Hearts.

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After formal presentations and business took place, the meeting moved on to questions from shareholders. One email query surrounded the "preponderance of referees from the west coast". McKinlay responded: "I think it's really important for me to say I've never witnessed any sign of corruption in my time in Scottish football. That includes six years at the Scottish FA, part of which included the head of referees, John Fleming, reported in to me.

"As to why there's a preponderance of west-coast refs, I can't actually give a clear answer to that. The head of referees, Crawford Allan, is from Edinburgh and I'm sure he would be delighted to have more refs from the east. Our referee this weekend is Kevin Clancy. Kevin is a partner in a top-level law firm in Scotland and highly respected. Does that mean he won't make mistakes? That's an entirely different issue." Referencing recent events in Turkey, McKinlay added: "Without referees, there would be no game."

Then came a recruitment question for Joe Savage: Can you explain the rationale for us going halfway across the world to sign [Yutaro] Oda, [Kyosuke] Tagawa and [Kenneth] Vargas.

"Because we think they are good players and believe that they can strengthen the team. Vargas became an international with Costa Rica since we signed him. Tagawa has two caps for Japan and Oda is a big part of the Japanese Under-21 and Under-22 team that will go to the Olympics next year.

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"We feel they worked hard. Tagawa has probably not settled as quickly as we'd all liked. He has carried a couple of injures and not played as much as he wanted. Vargas has shown in fits and starts that he can be good. Oda did really well towards the end of last season, he scored against Hibs, scored against St Johnstone and Aberdeen this season. These are difficult markets for us. We always look to try and sign players from the UK to hopefully help win trophies. That's what we all want."

The next question asked Savage: Did you or anyone else consider signing Danny Armstrong? If not, why not? Savage gave an honest answer. "I can't speak about about another player because he is under contract at another club. We defintiely look in Scotland. We have a player here, Lawrence Shankland. If somebody tried to sign him, would we be open to selling him? You have to look at other clubs as well. Will they be open to selling players? I know the player you mention and the price the club are looking for is seven figures."

Many were intriguied when a query arose about whether the board are happy with the management team. "The football is horrific. It's the cheap and easy option," stated the email in question. McKinlay said: "There is probably not a lot I can add. We watch the same football and we would very much like to see that football improving. One of the reasons Steven and the management team were in consideration was the football we saw at the end of last season."

The meeting then turned to questions from the floor. One shareholder asked directly if Shankland was about to be sold to Rangers. "I'm delighted you asked that," said McKinlay, "so I can give this answer: We are not looking to sell Lawrence Shankland. Given his obvious importance to the team, it would take an exceptional bid for us to even consider it. We have no need to sell players and would only do so if we receive a valuation we feel is appropriate. We have had no contact from any club or agent to suggest anyone is going to bid for Lawrence in January."

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The next fan asked why Hearts don't seem to be able to change their team around during games, with substitutions one of the issues raised. Savage referenced the Livingston win when Jorge Grant and Vargas came on before Vargas scored the winning goal. The sporting director mounted a defence of Naismith, whilst admitting that sometimes substitutions do and don't work. "I think that's a bit harsh on Steven if I'm honest with you," he finished in regards to criticism of the head coach.

A question on forthcoming games pondered what can be done to improve things and realise aims because "the last 18 months have not been good enough". McKinlay reacted: "Steven is currently the [ Premiership] Manager of the Month and you can laugh at that but it's a fact. Steven, as with Robbie [Neilson], are both football people. They both understand it's a results business and understand the pressure they face. They know if things don't go the right way then there is only every one outcome. People have said we got rid of Robbie. Well Robbie said to me: 'Andrew, I understand why you've made that decision. I had come to the end of my time.'"

Budge intervened at that point. "One of the things Steven talks about a lot is mentality - players having the right mentality," she said. "He gets frustrated because he says we do all sorts of things in training but on the big stage something might not work for him. I was at a dinner on Tuesday and Brian Redpath spoke about the difficulty of managing. He talked for 10 minutes about mentalty. Essentially, the mesage was: People can have technical ability and do all sorts of training but it can take time for people to overcome their own inhibitions.

"I have confidence Steven and the mangement team are doing everything in their power to get results on the pitch." A comment from the floor suggested "passing the ball forward would help". Budge acknowledged that comment.

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With time running out in a meeting which lasted almost two and a half hours, one stern questioner stood up and said: "Our football on the pitch is embarrassing. We play the most negative football. What's the problem? Is it the coaching staff not getting their message across or are the players you are signing not smart enough?"

Savage responded: "I will take the criticism on board," he said. "Maybe some of the players we've signed have not met the standards we've set. I could be a bit of smart-a**e and point out the data we have to show we pass the ball forward but you aren't going to listen to that. This is a learning curve for me and I take the criticism on board. I've deserved the criticism. It's not Steven or the coaching staff's fault that they aren't carrying it [instructions] out. He wants to attack.

"There are rumours out there that I didn't want Steven as manager, that I don't like him and he doesn't like me. That's a load of rubbish. I will take the criticism forward and try to make sure we sign better players who you feel are fit to wear the Hearts jersey."

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