WITH nine games left to play in a season he has wearily described as “long and hard”, Hearts manager Gary Locke yesterday expressed concern that the club’s mission to exit administration has suffered a hitch in Lithuania.
The bid to emerge from administration remains the Tynecastle club’s principal objective in a campaign that has been beset with difficulties due to a 15-point deduction and a signing embargo. But the lack of information forthcoming from Lithuania, where the firms which hold the majority of the club’s shares are based, has caused Locke some unease as well as affecting his attempts to plan for next season in what seems certain to be the Championship.
The Hearts manager has admitted that his players are now “desperate” to resolve their futures at the club. As many as seven players in the first-team squad are understood to be out of contract at the end of this season. Others, such as defender Brad McKay, are in a position where it is at Hearts’ discretion whether or not they are retained for another year.
Locke is concerned that Hearts might not be in a position to offer anyone new deals even after the end of the campaign. By this time it was assumed that the club would have exited administration, thereby extinguishing fears of a points deduction being imposed again ahead of next season. This is a minor worry at this stage, since the club has until the eve of next season to achieve this aim – and plans remain in place to exit administration next month.
Hearts must have exited and not re-entered administration by the start of league season 2014-15 to avoid a new points deduction. The 2014-15 league season is due to start on 9/10 August, so the deadline to exit administration is 8 August.
However, the Tynecastle club are still dependent on events in Lithuania. As it stands, BDO, the club’s administrators, are waiting to conclude a Company Voluntary Arrangement whereby the Foundation of Hearts would purchase the near-80 per cent shareholding held by Lithuanian firms Ubig and Ukio. A Ubig creditors’ meeting is scheduled for 28 March in Lithuania but to BDO’s frustration, previous meetings have been cancelled at short notice as creditors prepare to vote on the transfer of shares to BDO – and then, ultimately, to BIDCO, the takeover company led by Edinburgh businesswoman Ann Budge, who has financed a £2.5 million rescue package.
The transfer of shares was expected to occur within an eight-to-ten week time frame from last month, which means BIDCO are still on course to complete negotiations by the target date. But Locke expressed concern yesterday that it has been “very quiet” in Lithuania. “It could collapse, but I pray that does not happen,” he said.
The manager is aware that some of the club’s out-of-contract youngsters could be a target for other clubs and might indeed have already been offered terms to sign elsewhere. The manager is still hopeful about signing Rudi Skacel after two previous attempts to register the former Tynecastle favourite failed due to SPFL rulings. The 34-year-old Czech will train with Hearts for the rest of the season. However, Locke’s main fear is losing up-and-coming youngsters.
“I am aware that a lot of clubs are represented at most of Hearts’ games,” Locke said yesterday. “The likes of Sam Nicholson and Dale Carrick have done well in recent matches. There is no doubt about it that these players will attract attention and interest and so will the experienced ones. It is a mark of them as professionals that they are focused on the job at hand. I have spoken to the majority of them and they are all willing to wait and see what happens and they all want to be here.
“That is very encouraging for me to hear. A lot of them want to get their futures secured but you saw the sacrifices they made in the summer to stay with Hearts. The players have shown that they want to play for this club and it would be great for them also if things could get sorted out quickly.
“I have been given no indication when we will exit administration,” he added. “I have dealt with the people in Lithuania myself as they have been at the club and they are now dealing with the administrator.
“These things are never straightforward. It is frustrating for everyone as we want to get things moving and get things done. It is frustrating from a manager’s point of view, the players and people behind the scenes at the club.
“There is not a great deal we can do about it. We just have to wait. It is hard for the players as they are desperate to get their futures sorted out. Everybody understands the situation and we have to deal with it.”
Locke added that it was still his “hope” that the club could be free of administration by the end of the season. “We need clarity in terms of planning for next season as well as trying to sell season tickets,” he added. “That is more for the supporters than anyone else. I can’t answer the question, though, as it is outwith our hands.
“Everybody wants some clarity on the administration situation as that would be great for us all, especially the supporters as it has been tough for them. Hopefully we will get answers sooner rather than later.”
Locke admitted that the worry over the complex negotiations on which the club’s future hinges brought “added pressure” in a week when football becomes a burning issue again. Hearts were without a game at the weekend due to the League Cup final but have their sights fixed on tomorrow night’s clash with Dundee United as they aim to keep their Premiership flame alight for as long as possible. They are currently 21 points adrift of 11th-placed St Mirren at the bottom of the league.
Locke is sorely aware that Hearts face the prospect of being relegated by rivals Hibernian the following weekend if a combination of results goes against them. The manager is determined that Hearts concentrate on a result that is in their hands to influence, at Tynecastle tomorrow evening in front of live television cameras. “I am not bothered about the Hibs game now,” he said.
Midfielder David Smith is expected to return to the squad tomorrow after injuring his knee in the League Cup semi-final loss to Inverness Caledonian Thistle.