TODAY’S hearing in Lithuania about the future of Ukio Bankas is unlikely to reach any conclusions which could damage Hearts, according to Ian Murray, the new chairman of the united fans’ group which hopes to take over the club.
Murray, the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South, believes that if the hearing makes the situation clearer, it may even take the club a step nearer to being controlled by its own supporters.
Ukio, in which Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov had a controlling interest, is in temporary administration. The hearing could choose to liquidate Ukio, which would raise the question of what would happen to the £15million owed to the bank by Hearts.
While he claims no foreknowledge of how the hearing will go, Murray thinks there is no economic reason for the administrator to seek immediate repayment of that £15m. He has also discussed Hearts’ situation with the Lithuanian ambassador to the UK, among other interested parties, and is convinced there is no political will in the Baltic state to do anything which would jeopardise the Scottish football club’s existence.
When Ukio was placed in administration, its “good” domestic assets were allocated to a competitor, Siauliu Bankas. The bad domestic assets have remained with the administrator, who is essentially acting on behalf of the Lithuanian Central Bank. Murray expects today’s meeting to decide how to deal with the foreign assets, good and bad, including Hearts.
The picture is clouded by the relationship between Ukio Bankas and Ubig, Hearts’ parent company, in which Romanov still has a controlling stake. While Hearts owe Ukio £15m, Murray’s understanding is that Ukio in turn owes that amount to Ubig. That means there is no external creditor who could choose to try to call in Hearts’ debt.
“Even if Ukio are declared bankrupt, in the short term I don’t see it affecting the club,” Murray said yesterday. “Hearts’ debt to Ukio of around £15m is secured against an asset” – the stadium – “that isn’t valued at that.
“That £15m is owed in turn to Ubig. So this link between Ukio, Ubig and Hearts, all falling at once like a pack of cards – I don’t think that’s accurate.
“There’s a political issue as well. Lithuania takes chairmanship of the European Council in October for six months. It’s the first time they’ve done it. and they want to be seen as a mature democracy and economy.
“The last thing the Lithuanian authorities want to do is bring down a football club in another capital city. I wouldn’t see how that’s in the interests of the creditors either.
“If you take all those things into account, it shows that the window of opportunity to buy Hearts is probably here and now. There’s no white knight with a large cheque coming in to buy the club, so what do you do?
“If you look at other assets that have been bought out of liquidation in the current economic climate, I would have thought that 10 or 20p in the pound would be a decent return. Put it this way, you’re not going to get £15m back if you’re Ukio Bankas.
“So If somebody then says ‘We’ll give you £2m for that debt [of £15m]’, is the liquidator duty-bound to take it? Perhaps he is. If he’s told ‘Here’s an offer, take it or leave it’, he’s not going to leave it.”
Murray’s task now is to ensure that the various Hearts groups, who will meet under his chairmanship again tonight, can put together a package that can successfully settle the debt then take over the club from Ubig. He is convinced the will is there within the club, and he has been encouraged by the number of supporters who have already pledged a monthly sum on the Foundation of Hearts website. He now wants the Foundation and the other interested parties – the Federation, the Trust, the Shareholders’ Association, the Youth Development Committee and Save Our Hearts – to agree on how the club should be governed after a takeover.
“We have to put forward a credible and stable offer, and obviously one that is acceptable to the club,” he said. “Vladimir Romanov has said quite clearly that, given the circumstances, he would prefer to sell the club to the fans.
“We have said we will put in a bid as quickly as possible, but there’s no point in putting in a half-hearted bid. We need to be honest with the Hearts fans, and if we submit a bid where the work hasn’t been done properly, and it doesn’t take the fans with us, then there’s no point. It’s got to be the right bid.
“The basis is there in the work done by the Foundation of Hearts. But the only way they can be successful is if they take every fans’ group with them. And the only way they can do that is to ensure that everyone is involved and buys into the process.
“There are already significant pledges made via the Foundation’s website. There is no point in reinventing that wheel.
“At the moment we’re talking about what kind of set-up would serve the club best if and when it is under supporter control. If we can resolve issues like that, we will be able to show the fans that the work has been done.
“Then the big issue becomes encouraging more people to pledge. We want to ensure that every single fan who pledges has an equal chance of having a say in how the club is run. Then once the pledges are converted to cash, the thing can happen.”