Stuart Bathgate: Loyal fans can prove Hearts’ biggest asset

Hearts player Kevin McHattie serves supporter Michael Turner his parent and child season ticket yesterday. Picture: SNS
Hearts player Kevin McHattie serves supporter Michael Turner his parent and child season ticket yesterday. Picture: SNS
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AS THE reality sank in last week that their club was going into administration, some members of the Hearts staff indulged in a spot of black humour by playing a new game: count the cracked club crests.

It’s a staple ploy in journalism, used in far less serious situations than the present one at Tynecastle: reproducing a club’s emblem with a crack down the middle. And it’s even more tempting when the club in question is the one from Gorgie, because then you can wheel out that old ‘Broken Hearts’ headline.

In this case, because it was more serious than usual, several media outlets opted to print several cracked crests. Hence the chance for those beleaguered employees to play that new game, which at least momentarily took their minds off the fact that their jobs were at risk.

By Thursday evening, 14 of those jobs were gone. Bryan Jackson and Trevor Birch of administrators BDO held a press conference at 5pm to announce that cut to the backroom staff, to explain that four players were also at risk of having their contracts terminated, and to appeal to the Hearts support to dig into their already-plundered pockets yet again.

Jackson called the situation “desperate”. Ian Murray, chairman of the Foundation of Hearts, had already called the club’s descent into administration its “darkest day”. Understandably, many fans feared the worst.

But by the time Jackson and Birch entered the Gorgie Suite and sat down to address the media, two potential routes to recovery had already opened up. One came via the Foundation itself, which, after an open meeting the previous Friday, also in the Gorgie Suite, had seen a significant upturn in the number of fans signing up for its pledging scheme. The other came from Gordon McKie, the former chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, who has become the public face of a group of investors aiming to buy the club and restore it to a sound financial footing.

Murray, the MP for Edinburgh South, met McKie for the first time some eight hours before that BDO press conference. It was no more than an informal, preliminary meeting, in which McKie gave some details about the plans he and a group of investors have for Hearts, while Murray talked a little bit about the work of the Foundation. But it was a start.

Last night Murray rightly insisted that the Foundation would continue its attempt to put together a bid for Hearts on its own, and warned that the emergence of another group with cash should not be regarded as the end of the crisis at Tynecastle. Certainly, democratic control of a football club is the only way of absolutely ensuring that another self-willed owner such as Vladimir Romanov does not bring it to the brink of ruin again, and for many of us whose political persuasions are akin to Murray’s, a fan-led club remains the ideal. Having said that, there is an obvious advantage to be gained if the Foundation can agree to work the McKie group. As Murray has put it, McKie and his colleagues are cash rich but revenue poor, while the Foundation are cash poor but revenue rich. The McKie group have money they can put into the takeover up front, while the Foundation, through the pledge system, has thousands of supporters who have agreed to contribute a monthly sum to the running of the club.

In other words, they have complementary strengths. Without the Foundation, McKie and his colleagues would have to start from scratch when it came to convincing the fans to back their bid. Without McKie, the Foundation would run the risk of having a fine plan for running the club, without the wherewithal to take it over in the first place.

Since becoming chairman of the supporters’ group, Murray has ensured that the egos of its most prominent members have taken a back seat. The aim remains to ensure that the fans have the greatest possible say in the running of the club – but that is not at all the same thing as ensuring that any named individuals from the Foundation get a seat on the Hearts board once the takeover is complete.

As Murray describes it, there are three ways in which the Foundation can achieve some influence. Either they take the club over on its own, or they make a joint bid with another interested party, or they simply give their backing to another party without formal involvement in a takeover. Options two or three, of course, have a simple caveat: the Foundation will only enter a joint bid or back an independent bid if they are convinced that such a move is in the best interests of the club.

Whatever happens from here on in, though, success will only be possible if the massive effort put in by thousands of supporters over the last few days carries on. When Jackson explained BDO’s proposal to sell 3,000 season tickets over the two-week period from last Thursday, his trepidation was genuine: having seen how Hearts fans had given so much money towards the end of last year merely to keep the Romanov regime alive for a few more futile months, he thought there was a risk that their attitude might be once bitten, twice shy. That they would decide enough was enough, and decline to risk any more of their savings on a venture which had no guarantee of success.

Instead, they showed they could readily appreciate the difference between the Hearts of today and the club as it was when under Romanov’s control. Although just in case anyone was having difficulty grasping that distinction, BDO made the task even easier for them the following day by getting rid of the club’s three remaining directors, all of them Romanov appointees.

There is a long way to go still, and until any bid is successful it would be unwise of anyone to presume that the recovery cannot be deflected off course. But the fundraising efforts of the supporters over the past few days has shown that their fighting spirit remains intact, no matter how many demoralising blows they have suffered of late. Put simply, those efforts have demonstrated that, no matter what the graphics departments of newspapers may get up to, this is one club crest that does not crack.