THE Hearts players returned to the business of football yesterday as they put fund-raising efforts on the back burner and reassembled for pre-season training.
After a torrid end to their close season, they were welcomed back with some rallying words from manager Gary Locke who believes his threadbare squad are ready to focus on the job of trying to overhaul the 15-point deficit bestowed on them by the SPL after the capital club entered administration last week.
But, with numbers tight, he says the last thing the club needs is to be also hit with a fine by the SFA, fully aware that could force the administrators’ hand and render the off-loading of more players a necessity.
“I’m suffering enough at the moment with the numbers we have. I can’t comment until something happens, but I hope common sense will prevail and we can try and get on with the season ahead.”
Under the rules of the SPL, the 15-point deduction has been accompanied by a registration embargo, preventing Locke from adding to his squad, even if he had the means to do so. But now the SFA’s independent judicial panel is expected to meet within the next couple of weeks to determine what further punishment, if any, should be meted out. One option is a fine but they could also recommend a censure or a further ban on player transfers.
“If we were hit by a hefty fine it wouldn’t help the cause but that’s for the administrators and the SFA to deal with. I’m just delighted we’re back on the training pitch and we can concentrate on that and I echo my message to the fans: we are nowhere near out of the woods. We still need their backing and support.”
Without an assistant manager after Edgaras Jankauskas’ contract was not renewed in the summer, Locke says that given the circumstances he is willing “to crack on with it” but admits the paucity of players is of bigger concern, especially as they also have under-20 fixtures to fulfil.
“We’ve got 21 players, including the three keepers. It’s not the size of squad we’re used to working with here, but the boys are all up for the challenge and that’s a great thing. It’s now a chance for me to focus on something else. The boys have come back looking really fit – those who are still here, anyway – and I’m looking forward to getting back on the training pitch again because it has been a hard few weeks.
“I spoke to the players and what was said will remain between us. The main thing is that the football club is still here. This football club is bigger than anyone and it is a privilege to be working here.”
Expressing pride in the way his young squad have reacted to the news, weighing in with donations, buying extra season tickets, auctioning off shirts and meet and greets as well as showing face at fund-raisers and bolstering the spirits of fans as they queued for season tickets or club merchandise, he says winning games would be the best way to reward the supporters.
“It’s great, so long as they now concentrate on football, too. They have shown what the club means to them and our fans will relate to that. The fans are going to give us their support in huge numbers and it’s important we try and give them something in return. Most of the boys have come through the academy and they know what it is all about at this club and what it means to play for this club. I am quietly confident we can do reasonably well. It will be a huge task, we are 15 points adrift without kicking a ball so we are going to be up against it, but we will do our best.”
The upside of the push for season ticket sales is the likelihood of massive crowds at Tynecastle for every home game.
“There is nothing better than a full Tynecastle with the fans getting right behind the team. They have shown their passion and I have no doubt they will show it in the first couple of home games of the season. It is also up to the team, whoever that may be, to try and give the fans something to shout about.
“Hearts fans really do get behind their own, I experienced that myself as a player and you have seen what the club means to the fans and what it means to the players and the backroom staff. If you have that type of mentality at the football club you have half a chance and it is a fantastic opportunity for [the young players].
“They would get a chance at Hearts even if we had a full first-team squad, we saw that last year, but now some of them might go in the team when they don’t expect it – we can only play the players that are here and the squad is paper thin. But it is a close-knit squad.
“It is a very young team and we will have inconsistencies, but they all had a taste last season and I know what they are capable of and the quality here. If they can play the way they did in some games last season, but on a more consistent basis, then we will give ourselves a chance.”