Former Hearts chairman Leslie Deans insists black players have always and will always be welcomed at Tynecastle despite Esmael Goncalves’ racism claims.
The Edinburgh businessman ran the club in the 1990s and was appalled to hear about Goncalves’ comments in yesterday’s Evening News stating he had been racially abused before joining the Uzbekistan club Pakhtakor Tashkent.
Hearts issued a strong statement warning fans that anyone guilty of racist behaviour will be banned from attending football matches and reported to police for prosecution.
Deans, who sits in the Tynecastle directors’ box, stressed he hasn’t heard discriminatory comments but is confident that black players should not be put off joining Hearts in future.
“I’m totally confident black players will continue to come to Hearts,” said Deans. “I remember 25 years ago the club signed the late Justin Fashanu, who was a black player. Hearts were prepared to bring the guy to Tynecastle. There would have been other clubs in the country who perhaps wouldn’t have done so but Hearts have always been open and receptive to people of all creeds and colours.
“We have had many black players down the years and I have no doubt that will continue.”
Goncalves admitted his family stopped attending matches before his £300,000 transfer.
“I didn’t want to leave Hearts at first, but the problem was that my family were no longer coming to the games,” he said. “There were some people making racist comments to me in the stadium and my family did not feel okay about this.
“It was a minority, but bad things even from a minority can have a big impact. My family should be able to go to the stadium and feel comfortable – it’s not nice when your son, your wife and your brother have to listen to people calling me ‘a f****** black’.”
Deans conceded there can be no excusing such behaviour and revealed how he targeted anyone involved in antisocial behaviour during his Tynecastle tenure.
“The vast majority of Hearts fans show no signs whatsoever of racial prejudice or, indeed, religious bigotry,” he pointed out. “I made it very clear when I was chairman of Hearts 20 years ago that the club would not tolerate religious bigotry in any shape or form. The same goes for racial discrimination.
“There is no doubt in the past there has been the odd unsavoury incident. If you turn the clock back 30 years, I well remember bananas being thrown in front of a Rangers player, Mark Walters. Quite frankly, that was totally out of order and unacceptable.
“I’m at all the home games and a number of away games as well and I can honestly say I don’t see any evidence of this kind of conduct from Hearts fans now.
“You can always get a bad apple somewhere in a group of supporters.
“Heart of Midlothian has no reputation for being discrimanatory. We are open, we are progressive, and you can see that in the way promising young players are promoted at Tynecastle before any other club in the country.
“Harry Cochrane, Anthony McDonald, Andrew Irving and Euan Henderson have broken through this season despite being under-17s. Hearts are innovative and forward-thinking but bigotry has absolutely no place.”
Deans’ words are likely to be echoed around the Tynecastle boardroom by chairwoman Ann Budge and her fellow directors. Since taking Hearts out of administration in 2014, Budge has been committed to generating a real family atmosphere in and around the ground. She wants more parents and children at games to harness the next generation of fans.
Goncalves’ claims fly in the face of her intentions, and Deans expects her to take action to root out any minority who are guilty of racist abuse.
“I’m pretty certain the club won’t be complacent. I know Ann Budge demands high standards throughout the club and rightly so. I have no doubt standards like that will be adhered to,” he continued.
“The facilities at Tynecastle now are better than they’ve ever been. We finally have our new main stand to go with the other three relatively modern stands.
“I’m old enough to remember when three quarters of the ground was terracing and the facilities were poor. Now they are up to date and appreciated by the vast majority of people who come to the ground.
“Although there are things which still require to be finished in the new stand, I believe it will all be done and ready for the start of next season. So the club have made tremendous progress on and off the field in the last few years since coming out of administration.
“That process will continue in the months and years to come. I’m pretty sure anybody guilty of anti-social behaviour – religious, racial or otherwise – will be dealt with firmly by the club.”