HEARTS will begin next season in the Scottish Premier League – but with a 15-point deduction if majority shareholder UBIG is declared insolvent.
That is the all-but-certain position faced by the Tynecastle club after an SPL board meeting earlier today ruled that UBIG had yet to suffer an “insolvency event”.
The board left itself the option of reconsidering the situation in the unlikely situation of further evidence being unearthed about UBIG’s current standing in Lithuanian law. Crucially, however, if it were to have an effect on this season’s league table, that evidence would have to relate to events which occurred before the last SPL fixtures were played at the weekend. Under rules adopted last summer, Hearts would be docked a third of last season’s points total of 51 (the figure of 17.3 would be rounded up to 18) if they or a parent company were deemed to have become insolvent before the end of the season. If applied earlier today, such a penalty would have sent Hearts below Dundee and into the First Division. But, while the Edinburgh club have won that fight, they appear sure to be unsuccessful if they argue that UBIG is not their owner or operator. Although the SPL have stopped short of stating bluntly that a future insolvency event for UBIG would automatically mean that Hearts were also insolvent and therefore faced a points penalty, league chairman Ralph Topping left no doubt that such a development would be extremely serious for the club. Having finished this season on 44 points, Hearts will be penalised 15 points if at any point between now and the end of next season they are ruled to have become insolvent.
A brief statement released by the SPL in mid-afternoon said simply: “The SPL board met today to consider reports from Lithuania in respect of Ukio Banko Investicine Grupe (‘UBIG’). The board are not satisfied, on the basis of information currently available to it, that an insolvency event (as defined by SPL rules) occurred in respect of UBIG during season 2012-13.”
Later, Topping fleshed out that statement, saying: “We were trying to establish the legal position. Weighing up that position against our SPL rules, it’s quite clear that there is no insolvency event at this point based on the information we have.
“We’re looking at things as they currently stand. If anything else emerges over the next week or so, we’ll be duty-bound to look at the information we get.”
Asked if his organisation could yet revisit the league table, Topping continued: “It would depend on what came out. Again, it would be on an interpretation of the information given to us, and whether it would be appropriate to do that, and that would be a decision for the full board.”
Senior figures at Hearts have argued that, as they have received no cash from UBIG for some time and are thus now self-sustaining, Heart of Midlothian plc should be regarded as their parent body, not UBIG itself, which has applied to be granted insolvency status in Lithuania. Asked what would happen if that status were to be granted – as now seems certain – Topping replied: “You would have to look at that again, but you would have to say that that would be a serious situation. UBIG are the largest shareholder in Hearts. All we’ve done is to say there’s nothing there in the information we have to say that there is an insolvency event facing Hearts. If further information comes forward, we’d be duty-bound to look at it. We wanted to make it quite clear to everybody concerned – to be fair to Hearts, to be fair to Dundee, and to the rest of Scottish football – what our view was at this point in time.”
Topping refused to comment on what he called another hypothesis, when asked if Dundee or First Division runners-up Morton would be the beneficiaries if at some stage in the coming weeks Hearts were given a retrospective points penalty. Earlier, Dundee chief executive Scott Gardiner had left a meeting of SPL clubs at Hampden and declined to comment on the situation on the grounds that it had nothing to do with him – a reference to the fact that the Hearts issue was only formally discussed in the board meeting.
“I don’t expect a challenge,” Topping said when asked about Dundee’s reaction.
Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray welcomed the board’s decision, but said he still expected UBIG to become insolvent at some stage. “It’s great news that we now know that Hearts will be in the SPL next season,” said Murray, who is chairing a bid to buy the club by the united group of Hearts
Former Livingston owner Angelo Massone was also reported to be interested in making a bid for control of Hearts. Massone has already had one offer turned down by the Hearts board.