“It might take a few years to get rid of the paranoia – it’s seeping through the walls,” said Dave McPherson as he sat in Tynecastle’s Gorgie Suite, reflecting on an era which he feels saw his former club shorn of its pride, class and dignity.
While some Hearts fans argue that two Scottish Cup wins and a second-place finish in the SPL justify Vladimir Romanov’s eight-year reign of recklessness, McPherson, who helped the club win the Scottish Cup (1998) and finish second (1992) long before the Russian swanned into town, is having none of it. The 49-year-old former Scotland defender describes the Russian’s tenure as “a disaster” and wants to see the Foundation of Hearts given the chance to lead the club out of administration and start rebuilding its battered reputation.
“You take the two Scottish Cups away and it has been a disaster, the whole Romanov era,” said McPherson, known as Slim. “There was a lack of trust within the boardroom and the club in general. The punters will say it was worth it to beat Hibs 5-1, but long-term, people lost their jobs and the community and the club were ripped apart. I don’t think it’s been worth that.
“I was talking to Ian Murray [the Foundation chairman] about my first spell here in 1987 and it was such a family-orientated club. A lot of the staff were Hearts supporters and had the club’s best interests at heart. We need to get back to that. There are a lot of people behind the scenes now that can help develop that again.”
With regard to Romanov leading Hearts towards the precipice, McPherson is not being wise after the event. Any time he was contacted by the Evening News over the past eight years, it was clear he wasn’t exactly enamoured with the way his former club was becoming more and more detached from its roots, alienating a host of iconic former players while routinely inviting ridicule from the outside world.
Asked what his lowest point of the Romanov era was, he said: “When he first took over, I was always sceptical. He promised money and supporters being supporters, they believed he was going to spend it. He did spend money, but he wasted a lot. Right from day one the money he was spending was ridiculous. He brought in some good quality players but a lot of bad players as well. When you see owners wasting money the way he was, it was always going to get to this point. Thankfully it is here now and the club is still looking forward.”
As an agent with players like Ryan and Dylan McGowan on his books, McPherson always fretted about his clients being involved in what was widely perceived to be a shambolic set-up at Tynecastle. “Absolutely, it was always a worry,” he said.
McPherson briefly advised Andy Driver, but even he admits the winger, who has just been made redundant, was one of those paid too much. Asked if he felt for Driver, given that he had been left over £100,000 out of pocket be recent events, McPherson, who didn’t have anything to do with brokering his megabucks deal, said: “Yeah, but you have to look at the fact that he was probably overpaid at the time. These contracts that were being handed out were ridiculous. [Romanov] always thought he was going to get the money back by selling the player on, which was not the model to go down.”
In an era where even non- established youngsters were being handed lucrative long-term deals against, McPherson, as a former Hearts player and fans’ favourite, was never of a mind to take advantage of the club’s penchant for flashing the cash.
Regardless, he was never comfortable dealing with his old club. “I never negotiated any deals with my players where I thought they were being paid too much because I was more realistic,” he said. “I remember dealing with Anatoly [Korobochka], who couldn’t speak English, so right away you have a barrier. At least he understood football – you could trust him and he was a good guy, but the rest of them: I don’t think they had any idea or concept of what players should be paid.
“I never really dealt with [Romanov] on a one-to-one basis. I tried not to because I don’t think you could trust him. I more or less dealt with John Murray, over time I think even John thought it was just . . . you never got any straight answers. It took forever to get answers and ultimately to the detriment of the club.”
Despite the chaos, McPherson now sees light at the end of the tunnel as fans rally together and talented young players with the club at heart prepare to lead it forward with the support of, he hopes, the Foundation of Hearts. “Yeah, it is more positive,” he said. “You want to forget about the disaster of Romanov and move forward and hopefully get club out of administration and get things moving forward with more positive thinking. I think it would be good if the supporters got control. They have the club at heart and are not in it to make money. I still think they need a sound financial base behind it as well, but the Foundation or any supporters group, as long as they have the right business and football people, is the way forward for the Scottish game.”
McPherson knows Hearts manager Gary Locke, a former team-mate of his, faces a formidable task this season, but he expects the fans to be understanding as a young side prepare to try and overcome a 15-point penalty. “The transfer embargo alone makes it difficult for Gary Locke to put a top-quality team out, but I think the supporters will see that. It’s a good opportunity for younger players to come through, develop and get sold for money. I think there is value in the squad, but it’s up to the young players to develop. They won’t have a better opportunity to get out on the pitch and prove how good they can be. They have to seize it.