A supporters’ group fighting to seize ownership of Hearts last night survived a rigorous test of its credentials – but left fans fearing the club was doomed to administration.
Speaking on behalf of Foundation of Hearts, Edinburgh South Labour MP Ian Murray conceded to a packed room of nervous fans at Tynecastle Stadium there were no guarantees that the club could stave off insolvency until the bid was ready.
The group intends to cash in on financial pledges made by committed fans from July 4 – a date dubbed Hearts’ “Independence Day” – in its quest to buy the cash-strapped club.
A plea for fresh pledges was issued as it was revealed a separate consortium of Scandinavian businessmen was expected to lodge its own bid for the club on Monday.
Foundation of Hearts said it would support any bid in the “best interest of this football club”, but warned any Nordic pitch over the coming week was unlikely to succeed given the club’s uncertain financial state.
Hearts are £25 million in debt, with £15m owed to administrators currently liquidating Ukio Bankas. A further £10m is owed to parent company UBIG, which has claimed insolvency in Lithuania. The Tynecastle club needs to find £500,000 to survive until August.
Vocal fans, who challenged Mr Murray in a tense question-and-answer session lasting an hour, last night declared their renewed confidence in turning Hearts into a supporter-owned club.
But Mr Murray warned fans to prepare for the worst, with the potential for Hearts to fall into administration outwith his control.
He said the group was prepared for that possibility, adding: “There are massive advantages in the club going into administration. It gives clarity about ownership, it gives clarity about the current circumstances of the club and it gives clarity about what people are willing to sell and what they’re willing to sell for.
“Those three things are quite attractive. But actually when you look at the consequences of administration it’s not just about the football club, it’s not just about points deductions, it’s not just about the reputation of the club. There’s 150 staff employed [at Hearts] and they would be hardest hit by administration.”
More than 4000 financial pledges have so far been made to the Foundation’s takeover efforts. A pledge website is due to go live over the weekend allowing one-off donations to be made, not just monthly contributions.
Mr Murray refused to reveal how much had been raised so far, but stressed supporters’ cash would not be used to plug existing funding gaps and would be returned to fans if the bid proved unsuccessful.
He said: “The key point in all of this is the more money we’ve got, the more money we can potentially borrow and the more money we can potentially bid. But let’s be clear about this – we’re not going to get in a bidding war with anyone.”
Under the takeover model, nine directors would be appointed, with an annual general meeting to be held within three months.
Each pledge would give a supporter a vote and the right to stand for election. Those pledging £1000 or more would have voting rights for life.
Neither former striker and Foundation backer Donald Ford nor senior Hearts board members attended last night’s crisis meeting. But in a prepared statement read to the room, Mr Ford said: “The only possible solution is for a new concern to take over control and run Heart of Midlothian football club on an affordable annual budget . . . the Foundation has every chance of working. It’s up to Hearts supporters everywhere to grasp this.”
Ian Macleod, a campaigner with the Save Our Hearts group, said supporters had “just one chance” at buying the club. Lifelong Hearts fan Russell Young, 55, left the gathering “more confident” that Foundation of Hearts could pull off the takeover.
The Penicuik supporter said he had been impressed by Mr Murray’s business acumen, but added: “I have fears that the Foundation aren’t dynamic enough to take the club forward as quickly as it needs to be, before it enters administration. If that happened, it’d be an open market.”
Fred Chrystal, a season ticket holder at Hearts for more than 50 years, said: “I didn’t feel we had enough pledges, but Donald Ford is an accountant, he’s a very wise businessman and if he thinks we can do it, I’ll go along with him.”
Hearts were yesterday slapped with a signing ban by the SPL after again failing to pay players’ wages on time. That came 24 hours after the whole first-team squad was put up for sale – blamed on a lack of season ticket cash coming into the club.
But that failed to spark a frenzy, with fewer than 200 season tickets sold yesterday.