Hearts pressure valve released as all players agree wage cuts
Owner knew it was no time to budge on salaries
News of Hearts players agreeing wage cuts released a metaphoric pressure valve atop Tynecastle Park's new main stand. Reductions between 10 and 30 per cent were not what the squad wanted but, make no mistake, they are crucial to the Edinburgh club surviving this worldwide coronavirus crisis.
The majority of the playing staff accepted reduced salaries by Monday's 5pm deadline and two outstanding members are now on board.
Players will receive their new amounts on Thursday when monthly wages reach bank accounts. Some players asked for deferrals but Hearts stood defiantly firm. For the owner, this is no time to budge.
Criticism of Ann Budge hasn't been difficult to find recently yet, crucially, she has succeeded in cutting her club's expenditure whilst there is virtually no income with matches indefinitely suspended.
She identified future problems servicing a total staff wage bill which sat at £8.2million last June – that's before 12 signings arrived across subsequent summer and winter transfer windows. Then there is the prospect of a fall in future income through relegation for the Premiership's bottom team.
Arguments over extensive player turnover and whether exceeding budgets left Hearts with no room to manoeuvre are valid and relevant. Budge is responsible for how flexible or otherwise club finances are, former manager Craig Levein must also take some responsibility, however neither can be blamed for coronavirus.
Budge is one of thousands of club owners across the country and indeed around the globe in a similar predicament. Others agreed to defer salaries, including Hibs, Aberdeen, Celtic and Rangers, but Budge was determined to negotiate cuts because she needed to reduce outgoings.
Regardless how or why, she found herself in a position which demanded urgent and decisive action. She acted swiftly once football entered shutdown on March 13 and stuck to her guns knowing Hearts, like most clubs, could not afford to keep all employees on full pay with potentially no fixtures for months.
Initial proposals were for 50 per cent cuts – which some non-football staff suffered. Captain Steven Naismith agreed to move to half pay before the players accepted drops of between 10 and 30 per cent.
They took several weeks to come round to the idea, the threat of having wages stopped altogether through clause 12 in their contracts an obvious factor. Refusing and becoming a free agent through mutual termination of employment is not the best idea right now as teams everywhere fight to survive.
Clubs deferring wages must, of course, still pick up the bill at a later date. Depending on their monetary resources, that could lead to bigger problems – the kind Budge strove aggressively to avoid at Tynecastle Park.
"Without knowing the financial situation, I can understand why Ann or anyone else in her position would want to be proactive. They would want to look ahead and try to ensure the financial stability of the club," said football finance expert Bryan Jackson, who steered Hearts through a year-long administration process in 2013/14.
"My experience has been that, understandably, when people have to take wage cuts, it's a total shock to the system and difficult to deal with. It takes time to actually accept the situation, get used to it and deal with it. People find it frustrating because they tend to live to what they earn and they depend on it.
"My experience is that the earlier that idea is introduced, the better it is getting people to agree to it and come to terms with it."
It certainly took longer than Budge and the Hearts board wanted. A letter to every member of the playing staff last Friday reiterated the need for wage cuts rather than deferrals, plus the owner's refusal to put the club into debt. Gradually, players saw it as their best option as the countdown to Monday's deadline went on.
Fans largely feel it is only right that players accept a drop in money in these unprecedented circumstances, and particularly given the Hearts squad have collectively underperformed for many months on the field.
Season tickets for the 2020/21 campaign are currently on sale in an effort to bring in some revenue, although there is no certainty about when that will begin. "We are looking at months, possibly, with no income. We really don't know how long this will last," added Jackson.
"In the past, I've always felt football clubs have a great chance of surviving a financial crisis compared to other businesses. That's because they have a fanbase. Fans tend to do everything they can to help.
"However, in these circumstances, the knock-on effects of people losing their jobs and being furloughed might make it difficult for fans who want to support their club to be able to buy season tickets. There is so much uncertainty over how much support fans can give."
Which is another reason why Budge simply had to persuade players to do their bit to ensure Hearts have the best chance of survival.