HEARTS FC will remain at their “spiritual home” of Tynecastle if a Scots consortium wrest control from Vladimir Romanov, it has emerged.
Today, Foundation of Hearts chairman Alex Mackie lays bare his vision for the future in an exclusive interview and reveals that ownership of the stadium remains central to his lofty ambitions.
The businessman agreed to answer 20 questions put forward by the very people he must convince to back his takeover – the fans.
In a candid disclosure of the Foundation’s plans, Mr Mackie said they were working “closely” with the 1874 Fighting Fund founded by Gary McKay; had cut ties with Supporters Direct Scotland because it appeared too “close” to the Angelo Massone bid, and dismissed an estimated £17.9 million valuation of the club as “unrealistically high”.
Mr Mackie further outlined how his fan-led buy-out would be managed, with three supporters offered positions on the board and a “transitional period” between owners where money would be raised to meet the agreed valuation. He said: “I am delighted to have had this opportunity to answer the questions of Hearts fans’ through the Evening News and have provided as full and comprehensive replies as I can at this stage.”
Q Why do you want to take over Hearts?
A To ensure that this great club survives and has a positive, long-term future. Our vision is this: to have Hearts fans centrally involved in the ownership and running of this great club. To establish a well-run club which operates with integrity and transparency and encourages entertaining football from a team built around players produced by a thriving youth development programme. To have the club remain at its ‘spiritual home’ of Tynecastle for the foreseeable future in a stadium which maximises revenue streams. To ensure that the future of Heart of Midlothian Football Club remains secure for all time.
Q The Foundation has reportedly been speaking to Hearts for two years. Why will this bid succeed now?
A We have certainly been discussing the possibility of a fan ownership with the current owners for a long period, but over that time the Scottish footballing landscape has changed radically with the traumas around the Rangers situation and the uncertainty of the SPL’s future format, while the Hearts situation has also changed drastically with its well-publicised financial problems. We don’t know if this bid will succeed now, but we are absolutely clear that for the club to have any kind of future and be returned to efficient management, a vehicle for fan owner-ship (which is what the Found- ation is) had to be put in place and offered to fans as an option. It will only succeed if the fans want it to succeed.
Q Are there plans for the Foundation to work with the 1874 Fighting Fund – has there been talks between both organisations?
A Yes. We have already met with the 1874 Fighting Fund team and are working closely with them (as we are with other supporters’ organisations). Our preference is to bring all groups together under the umbrella of the Foundation, thus bringing strength and unity to the movement for fan ownership.
Q If you negotiate a price for a controlling shareholding, would members of the Foundation pay this upfront and then approach fans to contribute through a membership scheme, or do you envisage a transitional period where the Foundation reveals the figure and fans attempt to raise it?
A The plan is definitely for the latter – a transition period agreed with the current owners to allow the Foundation time to organise further and raise the figure required, principally through the fans’ pledge.
Q How many subscribers/ “ordinary” fans would be required to make the membership scheme a success?
A That will come down to any agreed purchase price and projections of the requirement for working capital after any deal is done, but our target at the moment is to try to reach all Hearts fans worldwide and gauge their support for the concept of fan ownership. We give an absolute undertaking to share the financial information with fans before we ask for any contributions from them.
Q How would the hierarchy of fan ownership work in practice and how would decisions be made?
A The final details on the day-to-day running of the club are yet to be confirmed as this will to some extent be dependent upon what we find after due diligence. It is likely, though, that there will be three fans’ representatives on the Foundation board, along with a number of directors placed onto the club to ensure efficient management and corporate governance of the club.
A chief executive would be responsible for the day-to-day business management, while a football manager would be responsible for footballing decisions.
Q Under the terms of a deal, what assets would the Foundation seek to own?
A The principal aim of the Foundation is to acquire the majority shareholding, which will bring us Tynecastle Stadium, the Heart of Midlothian brand, and the football rights of HMFC, debt-free and liability-free, for the long-term benefit of Heart of Midlothian and its fans.
Q What will happen with the money collected if an insufficient amount is raised to secure a majority shareholding?
A Our plan is to have the money raised housed in a holding account until any settlement was reached. If the fund-raising were to proceed and there was not enough money raised to fund the deal, the money would be returned to those who had contributed.
Q Can the Foundation reveal the identities of other key players behind their consortium, other than Mackie, Budge, Ford and Cormack?
A There is a large and very talented group of people behind the Foundation, all of whom have been working in their own time and at their own expense to try to make this proposal happen. A number of these people have already been identified in the media. Others may or may not wish to be identified as advisers to the group and we have to respect that. The identity of anyone appointed as a director of the Foundation would be made known to the fans.
Q There is some confusion over the various groups talking to Hearts. What exactly is your position and are you dealing directly with the club or negotiating through Supporters Direct?
A The Foundation of Hearts is talking directly with the current owners and is the only vehicle through which proper fan ownership of our club can be delivered if the fans want it. We have been working closely with the various supporters’ organisations and will be doing more to spread the word about the Foundation’s plans among fans here and throughout the world – most particularly to tell them about the pledge of support on our website (www.foundationofhearts.org), which is one way in which we can gauge the appetite of fans for the concept. The club is, separately, talking to Supporters Direct and we certainly welcome this indication from them (the current owners) that fan ownership is on their agenda. Supporters Direct, however, appeared to us to be close to the Massone bid. That is a road which we will not go down and we are therefore continuing our discussions directly with the club.
Q What happens in an emergency event – if we need a large amount of cash where does it come from?
A Issues such as this will be considered as part of the funding arrangements for any deal, but working capital requirement is a key aspect of the work we have done to date.
Q Are there bank loans in place? If so, with which bank? Are overdrafts going to be secured on the assets or directors’ loans?
A There are no bank loans or overdrafts. Discussions are under way regarding all elements of potential funding, but it would be premature to say anything further at this time.
Q Would the Foundation accept the possibility of being handed the club debt-free and liability-free but allowing Mr Romanov to own the stadium and lease it to us or do they consider ownership of Tynecastle an essential element of gaining control of Hearts?
A While we would not rule this out, our aspiration and preference would be to conclude a final settlement with Mr Romanov rather than entering into such a situation.
Q A mass direct debit fund-raising effort is very unreliable – people will lose their jobs/lose interest or buy a bigger house and give up. Will the Foundation have a wealthy backer to underwrite expected fan payments? Also if a future proposal was made to sell Tynecastle causing a schism between members could this not spell the end for the whole scheme?
A Yes, you’re right. Fund-raising in this way can never be 100 per cent reliable and we have to allow for a percentage of pledges to not materialise, but it is a model which we believe is sufficiently robust to achieve fans’ ambitions for the club, including fan ownership and efficient management of the club, and the commitment of Hearts fans to save the club has been well demonstrated recently. There may be high-net-worth individuals who will come forward to support this initiative and even underwrite elements of it, but that is not in the frame at the moment. The unknown factor in all of this, though, is the price that we would have to pay – and therefore the funds that we will have to try to raise. Selling Tynecastle is not part of our plan.
Q Romanov previously valued the club at £50 million, but the recent share issue would indicate UBIG values the club circa £17.9 million. What do you think is a realistic figure to buy Hearts FC?
A We regard both of these figures as unrealistically high and believe a realistic figure to be very significantly below the latter of these. The challenge is to bridge the gap between our respective perceptions of the value of the club.
Q How would the Foundation cut its cloth to ensure the club remains viable? In which areas would the axe be wielded?
A Like any credible professional organisation, we would conduct a best practice review of all aspects of the running of the club to ensure that it can live within its means.
Q If the so-called Big Tax Case against the club is won, would that not drive the value of Hearts up into the echelons where no supporter buyout could possibly afford? What happens if this bid fails?
A We very much hope that this tax case is won and the future of the club is not put under this further financial pressure. Whatever the outcome, it may indeed be the case that Mr Romanov values the club at a level which the Foundation – as the vehicle for fan ownership – is not prepared to try to meet. Until negotiations go further, however, and we do have an indication of that value, we are all in the position of not knowing if the gap can be bridged. In the meantime, we are looking to the fans to tell us (among other routes through their support for the pledge) if they wish us to try to proceed with a strategy for the future management of Hearts based on fan ownership.
Q Given that the quality of players at Tynecastle will inevitably diminish as costs are cut, how do you propose to get more bums on seats at Tynecastle with a less attractive product?
A Lower cost doesn’t always mean lower quality, but realistically this is all about fans demonstrating their commitment, particularly during challenging times on and off the field.
Q Where do you see Hearts in five years’ time?
A At Tynecastle!
Q What is your message for Vladimir Romanov?
A Our message is firstly to thank him for the considerable finance he has put into the club during his period of ownership, during which the club has enjoyed some memorable success. We do not underestimate this in any way. He has, however, expressed his wish to sell the club and that is why we are testing the concept of fan ownership which we believe could return the club to efficient management and strong corporate governance. He has a unique opportunity to hand on a magnificent legacy to the fans by passing ownership on to them – through the vehicle of the Foundation – for a fair and appropriate sum for the assets, but debt-free and liability-free. This, we believe, would cement his position for all time with Hearts fans.
Fans band together in new fundraising drive
HEARTS fans have been snapping up fighting fund wristbands in a bid to save their club.
The maroon bracelets have become a “must-have” item among the club’s loyal support, with hundreds being snapped up in just a couple of hours.
Lifelong fan Russell Glencross, 33, from Davidson’s Mains, joined forces with fellow supporter, Stuart McLean and the Heart of Midlothian Supporters Trust to produce 2200 wristbands bearing the hashtag #Saveourhearts.
Russell and Stuart were introduced through fans’ site Jambos Kickback, after they both pitched the same idea of selling the wristbands and using the proceeds to purchase shares in the club.
The bands – with a £2 minimum sale price – were selling like hot cakes at last night’s game against Celtic.
Russell said: “We both tweeted Jambos Kickback with the idea and they put us in touch. After this we approached the Supporters Trust and they agreed to pay for them to be made.
“We’re really pleased as all we want to do is help the club. All the money raised will be used to buy shares, we’re not taking a penny.
“The bands offer a more accessible alternative to those who cannot afford the share option but who still want to contribute to the fundraising effort.
“There will be a £2 minimum but if anyone wants to give more they will be made more than welcome.”
The Supporters Trust gave the fans a small donation to buy the bands. The club is also backing the initiative.
Wristbands have rocketed in popularity in recent years and are now considered a fashionable way of showing an affiliation to a cause or movement. Bracelets for the Help the Heroes charity have proved extremely popular.