THE embargo on Hearts making new signings is a short-term punishment but could be doing lasting damage to some of the most promising players at Tynecastle, according to John Robertson.
The former Hearts player and manager accepts that the club deserves to be penalised for the financial chaos inflicted upon it by former owner Vladimir Romanov, but believes that the authorities should have given more thought to the consequences of the two-window signing ban.
Hearts were given a 15-point penalty by the old SPL for going into administration, while the SFA imposed the signing ban, which runs until the start of February. Robertson, who is currently coaching the strikers at Tynecastle as a part-time volunteer, believes that the young members of manager Gary Locke’s squad are in effect being punished for something that they had no say in.
“If you run into the financial situation that Hearts run into, you deserve your punishment,” Robertson said yesterday. “But I don’t think they look at the embargo deeply enough. They just look at the first team and think: ‘Right, that’s what you’ve got, get on with it, you can’t sign any players.’
“The embargo has been the tough one. Rangers got a transfer window and then were told they could not sign players for over a year. That would have been helpful.
“I think Gary and Billy [Brown, the assistant manager] have dealt with it really well. So have the players, because there’s a lot of pressure on them. I don’t think people realise the mental and physical pressure that’s on them.
“By now a lot of them would have had a rest, would have been left out for two or three games to recover, not just for fitness and mental strength, but recover their form again in the under-20s.
“That’s been the toughest aspect and it will be without a doubt the toughest aspect going forward. If these young lads are asked to continue, my only worry is medically how they’re going to cope with it. Long term, these lads could pick up injuries now because their bodies are not ready for the rigours of the SPFL. It would be nice to get reinforcements in January.
“It’s incredible they keep going [in training]. It’s the same on a Saturday as well; they just keep going and going and going.
“A lot of them right now should be learning their trade in the under-20s, but they’ve been thrown ahead. It will stand some of them in good stead. For others, you just worry that it may affect them. Their confidence can go very quickly and it could affect them long term.
“That’s something that has to be managed. You have to understand that some of these young lads are well ahead of schedule and my only concern is that it does not have a detrimental effect on them long term.
“I was given a chance at 17 and didn’t play again for another year. I was given an opportunity because of injuries, and when I did start to play more regularly, it was four or five games, and then out for four, five games. You want to feed them in at the right time.
“Just look at the make-up of Robbie Neilson’s under-20 team at the moment: there are four or five lads that are only 15 years old. That’s not going to help them. That’s the knock-down effect of this embargo.”
Having made that measured criticism of the signing ban, Robertson went on to say he thought the whole situation had been avoidable, given the money Romanov spent on Hearts. The Lithuanian businessman bought out the debt that had been owed to Halifax Bank of Scotland, and could have put the club on a sound financial footing. Instead, he frittered it away, leading to the current situation where administrators BDO are aiming to reach agreement with the club’s creditors tomorrow so they can hand it over to the preferred bidders, the Foundation of Hearts.
“You hear Vladimir Romanov spent £60 million. It’s just a pity it wasn’t spent in the right way,” Robertson continued. “If someone came to me and said, ‘I’m going to invest £60m in Hearts over ten years, how do I do it?’, [I’d say] you pay £5m a year for five years and pay off the debt.
“You spend another £5m on a new main stand. Then you add another £3m a year to the budget and you have the third-best budget in the league and you’ll be up there challenging for trophies and Europe.
“That’s what any club would look for going forward. Hopefully Friday will be the first day of the road back. What happens this week will be one of the biggest days in the club’s history.”
Robertson was speaking at the official opening of Tynecastle’s Bobby Walker Suite, named after the great Hearts player who was recently inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame. Walker played in Hearts’ Scottish Cup final victories of 1901 and 1906, and was capped 29 times by Scotland.