THE prospect of Hearts coming under the ownership of supporters appeared to recede at the weekend when director Sergejus Fedotovas declared that the club could be sold before the end of the season.
Fedotovas’ comments, to the effect that talks have been ongoing with more than one interested party, came as a surprise to the Foundation of Hearts non-profit group of business people and fans, who had an initial offer for the club rejected last November.
As the Foundation have not been involved in any substantive further discussions with Fedotovas recently, it seems Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov is looking at alternative options. Un-named consortia in Scandinavia and the USA have been speculated upon in the past few weeks.
But until the identity of any prospective purchaser is revealed, serious worries will remain over the longer term future at Tynecastle as far as many who love the club are concerned.
Donald Ford, the legendary former Hearts striker, who is a committed backer of the Foundation of Hearts, fears Romanov would simply be perpetuating the club’s current difficulties if he sells to another entrepreneur with apparently deep pockets and grand ambitions.
“The hope has to be that Hearts avoid someone who says they have pots of money to sort it out,” Ford told The Scotsman. “Because, as we have just seen from what Vladimir attempted to do, it won’t work.
“If nothing else comes out of this, the hope has to be that the days of someone coming along with a chequebook and trying to buy success on a football field at Hearts are over.
“There seems to be a belief that someone buying a club and pouring a lot of money into it is a guarantee that success will come along. It’s just a misnomer. It just cannot work.
“It takes years for a manager and coaches to build. It doesn’t happen overnight. Even if you bring in two or three star players, it takes them time to get to know the club they’ve joined and the players they are with.
“If you look at all the great teams over the past 40 years, you’ll count on one hand the number of clubs who have bought star players and have instantly won things.
“Hearts are clearly still in a desperately difficult situation. It is carrying a huge amount of debt. I can’t surmise for a minute how the owners are looking at it, what they are doing about it or how they see the future. They don’t say much, if anything, apart from when Sergejus occasionally comes out with comments.
“The hope has always been that the plans the Foundation have been making for the supporters to take over ownership can get far enough advanced that they are attractive enough for the owners to accept.
“But you then come down to how much he would want for what is basically a bankrupt company. That’s clearly what has to be worked out over whatever period Sergejus is talking about. I have no idea who else is in the marketplace, apart from the Foundation. The principle of the Foundation idea is absolutely brilliant. Something has to change in the game. It just can’t go on the way it is, in such a desperate situation. The hope is still that the Foundation’s ideas can be carried through.”
Alex Mackie, the Foundation of Hearts chairman, has just returned from a break in the Middle East and will meet with his colleagues this week to assess where they now stand.
“I’m not sure if we are in the mix,” admitted Mackie yesterday. “I’ve not heard from Sergejus for a while. We do keep lines of communication open with him. The Foundation will meet early this week to discuss this new position and see what the next stage is.”
Hearts’ still perilous financial situation was brought into even sharper focus last week with the news that Ukio Bankas, the Lithuanian bank run by Romanov, had been placed in administration. Fedotovas has insisted that development has no implications for Hearts, who are owned by Ukio Bankas’ parent company, Ubig.
Mackie largely agrees with that assessment, but the East Lothian businessman also believes it underlines the fundamental weakness in Hearts’ current financial structure.
“We need time to digest what the administration of Ukio Bankas means,” added Mackie, “but I don’t think it changes too much, because the funds from Lithuania were drying up anyway.
“If Ukio Bankas is in administration, then there will not be any funding for Hearts coming from that source.
“Hearts are striving to become self-sufficient and that is to be encouraged. Can they get there, how can they get there and can the fans be confident they will get there?
“All I’m concerned with is some transparency over the cashflow management of the club. We can’t come back with another approach unless we have visibility over the funding gap.”
While Hearts presently seem to run the greatest risk of becoming Scottish football’s next major financial casualty, Ford believes the wider structure of the game in this country has reached crisis point.
“I found Terry Butcher’s comments last week about the low crowd at Inverness’ game, when they were sitting second top of the league, very interesting,” said Ford. “It does make you wonder about the future of the game in Scotland. It has to change to become sustainable.
“Anyone has to be concerned, not just about the finances of Scottish football, but the level of quality in the game now. It has gone so far down.
“I was fortunate to play at a great time when there were still a huge number of really talented players about and good attendances going to see them.
“You never lose your initial love of the club you played for or the game itself. You hope the game can be restored to good health again, but it’s a long road ahead, I’m afraid, and not just for Hearts.”
Robertson welcomes sale update
HEARTS’ record goalscorer, John Robertson, has welcomed news the club could be sold to new owners within months, writes Iain Collin.
In an interview aired at the weekend, director Sergejus Fedotovas revealed that negotiations are on-going with “a number of interested parties” and that those suitors may even be looking at a deal being sealed before the current season if finished.
Since Romanov made it known he was open to selling the club last year, former Livingston owner Angelo Massone, an Icelandic consortium and the Foundation of Hearts fans’ group have all apparently expressed an interest in buying out the Russian-born businessman.
A share issue that helped raise £1.05 million in December and the progress to next month’s Scottish Communities League Cup final against St Mirren are both expected to help the club – who survived a winding-up order over £450,000 of unpaid tax and have struggled to pay wages on time – through to the end of the season. However, Fedotovas’s statement that progress could be made by this summer, when Hearts will face the first of three agreed £500,000 payments to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs over another tax issue, has been hailed as a step forward in saving the club’s future.
Robertson, who acted as an ambassador for Hearts in the launch of their share issue late last year, stressed that Romanov should not be seen as the sole villain in the Tynecastle outfit’s current struggles.
Referring to the position Hearts were in when Romanov bought out Chris Robinson in 2005, Robertson said: “From my information, they’ve been speaking to a host of parties and, for once, it’s been kept quite quiet. There are a few buyers interested and they may be well down the road, but unfortunately I think there’s still a lot more to come.
“Although Vladimir Romanov gets a hard time of it, and for a lot of things rightly so, what a lot of people have to understand is Hearts were something like £22 or £24 million in debt before he took over. Hearts have been badly mismanaged for a number of years now.”
VLADIMIR ROMANOV - TIMELINE
February 2005: Romanov gains controlling interest in Hearts, saying that the club can remain at Tynecastle.
October 2005: With Hearts on top of the SPL, unbeaten for ten games, manager George Burley leaves after “irreconcilable differences” with Romanov, including hiring players without consulting him.
March 2006: After a disastrous run, Hearts have lost their leadership of the SPL and trail Celtic by 14 points. Manager Graham Rix is sacked.
May, 2006: Hearts finish second in the SPL and win the Scottish Cup.
September 2006: Romanov admits for the first time that he has picked the team.
December 2006: Romanov is fined £10,000 by the SFA for bringing the game into disrepute by accusing referees of being biased against Hearts.
February 2007: A Russian newspaper quotes Romanov accusing the Old Firm of buying off referees. In a separate statement entitled “Go away monkeys”, he tells the media “You, the monkeys, were trying to ruin Hearts.”
July 2008: Hearts announce a debt for equity issue, which will reduce the club’s £36m debt by £10m.
October 2011: Romanov says he is no longer willing to bankroll Hearts.
November 2011: For the second month running, senior Hearts players do not receive pay on time; Hearts settle tax bill of more than £1m with HMRC; Romanov says he is ready to sell club, which he values at £50m.
May 2012: Hearts win the Scottish Cup, beating Hibs 5-1 in the final.
October 2012: Romanov releases block of his shares, offering fans chance to buy back part of the club in a bid to raise £1.79m to pay off tax debts.
November 2012: Hearts are issued with a winding up order over an additional unpaid tax bill of almost £450,000 and appeal to the fans to buy shares and save the club. The forthcoming home match against St Mirren could be the club’s last, they warn. The Foundation of Hearts (FoH), led by businessman Alex Mackie and former player Donald Ford, bid to buy the club. Their offer is rejected. The fans rally and a payment plan is agreed with HMRC.
February 2013: Ukio Bankas, which Romanov controls, is suspended from trading over large debts, raising initial hope that he can be persuaded to sell Hearts to FoH.