Stuart Bathgate: Romanov must reveal his exit plan
IT’S not looking good for Hearts, is it? A debt of more than £22 million, a potential bill of £1.75m from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, and an owner who wants to get out.
And that’s not all. Factor in the value of the club according to the share offer to supporters it published last week, and the money pit looks even more forebodingly deep.
Hearts want to sell ten per cent of the shares owned by Ubig, the parent company in which Vladimir Romanov has a controlling interest, for £1.78m. So buying Ubig out, and thereby becoming effective owner in turn, would cost a supporter or group of fans just under £18m.
And that’s before the debt is dealt with. Before the tax bill too.
In other words, by that reckoning, it would cost a new owner more than £40m (the debt, the tax bill, plus the shares) just to wipe the slate clean.
Are there any takers? Romanov has been in search of them for almost a year now, and found none.
Moreover, recent experience with Rangers, a bigger club with far larger likely revenue, is not encouraging. Who would wade in with £40m when they could wait for administration or liquidation and pick up the whole thing on the cheap?
Granted, the Rangers case also tells us that football clubs can change hands more simply. Sir David Murray decided to sell out to Craig Whyte for £1.
Something similar could happen at Tynecastle. Romanov could write off the debt, allowing Hearts to move that bit closer to becoming a going concern again. He has already written off seven-figure sums on a couple of occasions, as well as carrying out debt-for-equity swaps to give the balance sheet a slightly healthier complexion.
But could you see that happening? Surely, if the Kaunas-based businessman were eager to quit at all costs, he would have done something like that last November, when he declared he had lost interest in football and was willing to listen to offers for Hearts.
He’s not that daft or philanthropic. He wants out all right, but certainly not at all costs. He wants as good a deal for Ubig as it is possible to strike.
That’s the downside for those Hearts fans who would rather see the back of Romanov. He’s not going to go quietly. On the positive side, of course, there is the fact that he could have gone a lot more noisily already. When he announced his intention to quit, Romanov could simply have pulled the plug, as he did at FBK Kaunas, which was demoted to the Lithuanian Third Division as a consequence.
Instead, Ubig has maintained its support for Hearts, albeit with severely reduced funding. The lack of fresh funds from the parent company has caused considerable problems for the current board, but crucially, Ubig continues to accept the fact that Hearts owe it £22m.
A change in that stance could end Hearts in their present guise. If Ubig insisted on recouping as much of that debt in as short a time as possible, the obvious course of action would be to sell Tynecastle. Given the present state of the property market, the ground might not command as high a price as the £20m-plus which was agreed back in 2004 between previous chief executive Chris Robinson and Cala Homes. But it would still be high enough, at perhaps £17m or so, to make Ubig decide it was a worthwhile way of cutting its losses.
That is the practical context in which any criticism of Romanov should be placed. Even those of us who have been infuriated with him at times for various reasons have to acknowledge that he has kept Hearts at Tynecastle for eight years longer than would have happened had Robinson had his way. That fact won’t stop the criticism, of course; nor should it. Given the length of his stewardship and the amount of money he has wasted, Romanov can justifiably be accused of wastefulness. He has had more than enough time and money to put Hearts to rights.
But Hearts supporters, and anyone else who wishes the club well, have to look beyond such criticism now. If any solution is to be found to this steadily worsening situation, we cannot afford to waste our time in recriminations. No matter how correct we might be if we were to recall all the times when Romanov threw money away, that won’t get a single step nearer to finding a solution.
So what could be a solution, and where will it be found? There are two. One is more palatable than the other, but it is hard to see at present which is the more probable.
At root, Hearts supporters will have to be prepared for a radical rebuilding exercise which may go deeper even than the one which Rangers are undergoing. The Ibrox club are in the Third Division, but at least we can still call them ‘the Ibrox club’. They have not been made homeless.
Hearts may not be so lucky. Hearts may have to look for a new home, probably as tenants, a course of action which would severely test the staying power of many fans.
That’s the less palatable solution, obviously. The more acceptable option, surely, would be for Romanov to make a phased withdrawal. If Ubig can afford it, if they do not need to recoup as much of the debt as possible as quickly as possible, it should be feasible for them to continue to make gradual cutbacks while chipping away at the debt.
At the moment, however, no-one is sure if they have the means or the desire to do so. When the share offer was announced, some mention was made of possible community ownership of the club, but there was not nearly enough detail.
In fact, since he declared his intention to sell in late 2011, Romanov has offered virtually no detail about how he plans to leave, when he plans to leave, or how long he plans to wait before bowing out. If he has an exit strategy, he has yet to share it with us. If he does not have one, it’s about time he did. The time for muddling through is long gone.
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