TREVOR Birch does not agree with the old adage that there is no room for sentiment in business.
Not when it comes to the business of football. But like most things, it’s about finding the right balance.
Without sentiment, Hearts may already have gone bust. It was emotion, not the promise of financial reward that drove fans to buy up shares in the club before Christmas and, likewise, it has not been the promise of stock market payouts galvanising the fans to buy season tickets or fuelling fund-raising efforts over the past few weeks.
The long-term survival of the club has been the goal, which is why the administrator believes that the club’s loyal fanbase could be their most valuable asset, whether they are successful in gaining overall control of the club or not.
But, having seen so many clubs over-extend in a bid to enhance the playing squad only to see their benefactor bail out, he says there is a lot to be said for fan-run clubs who can successfully merge sentiment with business acumen.
Which leaves the Foundation of Hearts in a decent position as the deadline for takeover bids gets closer. Earlier in the week the administrators had indicated that there were three or four interested parties with what they considered serious intentions. By the end of the week, that number had apparently reduced with former Scottish Rugby Union chief Gordon McKie’s group suggesting they were taking a back seat. But, as ever, the fans are not only sticking around, they are mobilising forces as they crank up the number of converted pledges beyond 4,500, and bolster their bargaining position as much as possible in the final few days.
It has not gone unnoticed by the administrators, who will have to bestow preferred bidder status if multiple groups come forward with proof of funds.
“But there aren’t many people falling over themselves to get into football and that is why a lot of the time it falls back on the supporters’ groups,” says Birch. “I have been speaking with the Foundation [of Hearts] and they are progressing well and I would expect them to continue to do so as they finesse their offer. It can take a bit of time when you are dealing with supporters’ groups, to pull everything together, but they have had a good response so it is encouraging.”
Following their appointment, the first thing administrators BDO did was gauge the level of revenue required to progress into the new season and beyond with as few redundancies as possible and they calculated the need for 3,000 additional season ticket sales. In terms of expectations, that was their upper level. Yet that tally is about to be topped, while fans’ groups and forums have already raised around £70,000 on top of that with the help of auctions, donations, raffles, rallies and fun days. That strengthens Birch’s belief that the fans could be the sustainable answer for the club.
“Has it surprised me? Not really,” he says. “When I looked in, I was hugely surprised that they raised £1 million as they did for the share issue [last year]. Because of that I knew there was a huge amount of support for the club, so this hasn’t surprised me, but it has still been a fantastic effort.
“I’ve not experienced a match day but I can imagine it’s an incredible experience. If you’re an interested party there on a match day then you’re almost writing the cheque. That, obviously, is one of the key assets.”
Getting that feeling for the club is something that those who have pledged their support and their hard-earned cash to the Foundation of Hearts as they finalise a bid ahead of the 12 July deadline fully understand. It is also something Birch has little trouble comprehending.
While the future of the Tynecastle club remains entrusted to outsiders who would tend to look more at home in an office setting than a football stadium, Birch is not just a man in a suit. Before he became a chartered accountant specialising in insolvency, he was a footballer. Signed by Bill Shankly, he was a young lad on the books at Liverpool, but having failed to break into the first team, he had spells at Shrewsbury Town and Chester City. He may have hung up his boots professionally a long time ago but he still understands the game and the passions it evokes.
This is the man who guided Portmouth out of administration and, as chief executive at Chelsea, paved the way for Roman Abramovich’s takeover.
But does sentiment cloud his judgment? “Sometimes, it probably does, yeah, particularly if you’re a football man. I probably step over the line, I know I do, but so far it’s worked,” he admits.
That was part of the reason he signed off on Danny Wilson remaining a squad member. With the fans rallying and John Sutton rejecting the chance to stay, money was freed up. Some administrators may have just banked it for the creditors, Birch insists keeping him could yet be better business as well as the best football decision.
“You’re hoping you make a commercial judgment that is sensible, as well as making a playing judgment. You can hang your hat on it by saying he transferred from Rangers to Liverpool for £2m and God knows how much he could move on for. He is only 21 and he might have a value. Who is to say in the January window he is not worth £500,000, a million? But that is the football man in me. When I first did my first [stint as] chief executive, I thought being a footballer would have no bearing on that at all but it was the biggest factor for me in terms of dealing with the job.”
Stating that he has already formed an emotional attachment with Hearts, he describes it as “one of those special clubs, it has a great feeling to it, a huge warmth and it is what I call a proper football club. It’s such a shame it has come to this when it had the ability to be sustainable with 15,000 people coming through the turnstiles every week.”
He isn’t the only one who believes it can be again. “There probably has been frustration from supporters for a few years because you want to believe in your club, you want the club to represent what you feel about football.
“My difficulty is that I am an officer of the court, therefore absolutely and totally independent but you can’t helped by swayed by certain parties who you prefer. My difficulty is someone coming in and saying we’re going to give you £10m and we will redevelop this into houses and the supporters bid a million, then you have Lithuania saying, ‘you want to take the million do you?’”
His hope is that when all bids are submitted there simply won’t be that level of disparity, allowing heart and head to act as one.