At a time when Hearts appeared to be progressing relatively serenely off the field, the talk of the dreaded ‘A’ word which resurfaced this week served as something of a reminder that they are still some way from being out of the woods yet.
The Tynecastle outfit have played down talk of imminent administration, but, despite their admirable efforts to become self-sufficient, an eye-watering £25 million debt continues to ensure a serious sense of unease among those who care for Hearts. All the more so given majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov’s lurch into financial crisis, which has resulted in the freezing of UBIG’s assets, and the subsequent impasse over ownership of the club.
A potentially pivotal hearing was due to take place today at Kaunas District Court in Lithuania, where a decision will be made on whether to bankrupt Ukio Bankas, a move which would hand the administrator the power to recall £15m of debt from Hearts and plunge them into administration.
While Leslie Deans, the former Hearts chairman, is optimistic such a dire scenario won’t unfold, he fears the wearying uncertainty gripping the club he loves could remain for some time yet. “Everybody knows the ongoing problems at the club, but I don’t think this week has caused things to be dramatically different,” he said. “I don’t believe the stories of imminent administration have any validity at all.
“I am aware of the personal difficulties Mr Romanov has encountered and the scenario relating to UBIG and Ukio Bankas. These problems won’t go away and, of course, they effect Hearts; it would be stupid to suggest otherwise.
“It would be crazy to rule out administration entirely somewhere down the line, but I know the people at the club are working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen. The club are obviously not in a position to eradicate the debt overnight; that will be a long, slow process. In the meantime, they have to live within their means, as they have been doing for the past year. If that means we can’t afford a new striker or midfield dynamo, then so be it. In the short term, we have to make sure the books are balanced and then we can chip away at the long-term debt.
“Hearts can be a stand-alone entity and they can work things through, but I believe it remains in the best interests of the club that a change of control takes place – I know that could take some time yet. In the short-term, though, I don’t think talk of imminent administration will prove to be correct.”
With day-to-day running costs now under a degree of control at Hearts, it is the humongous debt – of which £15m is owed to Ukio Bankas and £10m due to UBIG – which remains the obvious threat to the club. “At some point it has to come to a head,” said Hearts- supporting pundit Allan Preston, who played for the club in the 1990s. “Unless they can get some kind of payment plan to try and reduce the debt, I honestly don’t see an alternative to administration. It’s a hell of lot of money to try and pay back and I don’t see how they can do that the way things are.
“If they do have to go into administration, I just hope they can hold off until June so they can retain their SPL status, take a points deduction for the start of next season and hopefully find a buyer who can get the club for a decent price and move it forward debt-free. It has to be put into different hands because it’s just not fair at all that the Hearts supporters are having to go through this anxiety every three or four months.”
Gary Mackay, Hearts’ record appearance holder, has long feared for his beloved club and has been particularly outspoken about his concerns over the past year. Like Deans and Preston, he remains adamant that a concerted effort needs to be made to get the club into new hands as soon as possible.
“People always want to see the worst in things and this talk of administration may indeed turn out to be nothing more than scaremongering, but we shouldn’t simply ignore the warning signs,” he cautioned.
“There has been a continual run of staff not being paid on time, albeit that has improved of late. But it’s not just about yesterday and today; it’s about thinking about tomorrow and having our eyes wide open. That’s my big concern. Nobody saw the tax bill coming over the horizon, for example. Nobody could have foreseen that when we won the Scottish Cup last May, that a year and a bit later, we’d possibly only have one or two players left from that team.
“That’s a big transformation on the pitch. Who’s to say such a big transformation can’t happen off the pitch? From the day that the share issue was announced last year, the onus was placed firmly on the shoulders of the supporters to pull the club through. If that’s the way things are going to be, the best way is to let the supporters be the ones to take the club forward.”
In short, Deans retains a sense of optimism that a successful resolution will be found. Preston, however, is braced for potential administration, while Mackay is tearing his hair out in frustration.
The different outlooks of this diehard Jambo trio, who all possess a good insight into the goings-on at Tynecastle, pretty much sum up the range of feelings among an increasingly embattled support. What everyone of a maroon persuasion would give for the ongoing sense of anxiety, uncertainty and confusion to disappear.