Ian Murray, the Foundation of Hearts chairman, yesterday stood up for the fans after the Tynecastle club announced that their entire first-team squad had been put up for sale.
A club statement appeared to place the blame for this drastic development on “hesitation and inaction” on the part of supporters.
Despite claiming that they were now self-sufficient as recently as last month, Hearts yesterday made another appeal to fans to buy season tickets, citing fans who have “purposely held off” as being partly responsible for the club struggling to bridge a funding gap. “The club will consider offers for the players of the current squad, including the most promising talent in order for the necessary and important payments to be made,” said the statement, released on the Hearts official website yesterday morning. It added that this turn of events was a consequence of the revenue from season-ticket sales having “dried up” already.
However, Murray, a Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South, has defended the supporters. “It does not do the club any favours pointing the blame at fans,” said Murray. “They have dug deep already.”
The statement also made reference to “recent unexpected circumstances away from Tynecastle” as being another reason for the shortfall in funding. Ukio Bankas, the Lithuanian bank that holds nearly 30 per cent of shares in Hearts, were placed in administration last month, while UBIG, a separate company also owned by Hearts majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov, have asked to be declared insolvent. Meanwhile, Lithuanian prosecutors have threatened to issue a European arrest warrant for Romanov after he failed to appear for questioning over the alleged embezzlement of more than £12 million, relating to the collapse of Ukio Bankas.
Hearts need to locate another significant sum in order to meet a tax bill that has only been part-paid, or else face another winding up order. The fans rallied at the end of last year after director Sergeyus Fedotovas warned that the club were on the brink after a winding up order issued by HMRC, over arrears of £400,000. Over £1 million was raised by a share issue, while the club were also given some breathing space when they reached the final of the Scottish Communities Cup. The fans, Fedotovas said, “had given the club a lifeline in its darkest hour”. Now, however, the club have accused supporters of hesitation when it comes to buying season tickets, the income stream that the club are reliant on during the close season. After bailing the club out once already, some fans have shown reluctance to pay out a significant sum on a season ticket while the club’s position remains so perilous.
“The biggest threat to the club at present, however, is hesitation and inaction,” the statement said. “We hope that those supporters who have purposely held off will reconsider and make the decision to back the club in the best way possible in order that we can meet our targets.
“It is now crucial to the football club that we find a solution to bring in enough finance to allow us to trade into the new season when normal trading can resume with the benefit of SPL and game-related income streams,” the statement added. “The payments to HMRC and players/staff salaries are the most important issues in our focus these days where very limited time remains available to the club.”
Staff salaries are due to be paid this weekend. Hearts were put under a transfer embargo last year for failing to pay players on time, and could face further sanctions. Some supporters have expressed outrage at being identified as one reason why the club are again suffering severe income problems. Reports suggest Hearts have not yet hit the 7,000 season ticket sales mark, about 1,000 below the projected figure for this stage.
A Foundation of Hearts meeting had already been organised for this evening at the Gorgie Suite at Tynecastle, where Murray will address supporters and hold a question and answers session.
Murray admitted yesterday that time was against them as the Foundation prepares to make a bid for the club by the end of this month. Over 4,000 financial pledges have already been made. The fear is that the club will not survive until then.
“We have a fantastic opportunity, but time is not on our side,” said Murray yesterday. He understood why some fans were being a little more circumspect this summer with regard to purchasing a season ticket. However, he urged supporters to do what they can now.
“Each fan has to make their own decision,” he said. “I am aware that the economic conditions at the moment are not conducive to buying season tickets. If you are hesitating about buying season ticket, then support the club any way you can.
“Whether or not they overestimated season ticket sales, only the club can answer that,” he added.
“Friends of mine have asked whether they should hold money back. It is Catch 22. The more money you hold back, the worse it gets. The Foundation of Hearts have always said that fans should continue to support the club in the normal way. The alternative is too grim to consider.”