Emma Cowing: Sending off by Hearts is too little too late

THERE ARE few things less sincere in life than someone who admits they are wrong only after everyone else tells them they are.

In the case of Hearts Football Club, whose decision yesterday to suspend and possibly end the employment of convicted sex offender Craig Thomson came only after four days of cancelled sponsorship deals and school visits, pressure from Edinburgh City Council and a great deal of haranguing in the press, their sincerity is about as believable as an Alex Salmond handshake.

Let us be clear: Hearts did not make this decision because they felt Thomson - who used Facebook to befriend girls aged 12 and 14, engaged them in sexual conversation, asked them about their body parts, asked the older child for sex and sent her a picture of male genitalia - should not be playing for the club. Indeed, just last Friday they stated that they had carried out an investigation into the case and concluded that there was "no reason for Craig Thomson not to continue his career as a professional footballer" and that he would be resuming training forthwith. Their latest decision was made because - and thank goodness for public opinion - the Scottish people, Hearts fans in particular, have reacted with utter horror and disgust at the thought that a convicted sex offender could be allowed to continue his job at a so-called "family club", not just as a footballer but as a role model to children.

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Thomson never apologised to his victims. He never even acknowledged them in his pathetic statement. Instead, the 20-year-old has seemed only concerned with his own fate, bleating about the fact that the sheriff in the case "did not consider him to be a risk to the public". This appears to have been the route that Hearts have taken too. At no point since Thomson's conviction has the club expressed their concern for children's safety, or even acknowledged that they have a duty of care. This despite being a football club that engages in training programmes with schools, promotes itself as a family football club and has thousands of fans who are children themselves.

Perhaps then, we should be laying some of the blame at the door of the courts. Thomson's "punishment" was to be fined 4,000 - pocket money to a footballer - and placed on the sex offenders register for five years. Perhaps if he had received a custodial sentence, as well as counselling and therapy for what is clearly a sexual problem, the club might have taken the situation more seriously. Instead, he has been given a light slap on the wrist, and told not to be a naughty boy in the future. It's sickeningly inappropriate and a terrifyingly light sentence for an adult man who was grooming children.

THE frightening thing is that out there in internet land, there are other Craig Thomsons. Men with too much free time and unlimited access to the internet. Many paedophiles take years to build up behavioural patterns, becoming more and more adventurous each time they do not get caught.Every time we let someone like Thomson off lightly, we send a message to these men (and women) that sexually grooming young children on the internet is all right. That demanding that a 14-year-old child expose her breasts on a webcam is not a sackable offence. That asking a child for sex does not mean you will lose your job, or even be reprimanded by your employer.

And to Thomson's young fans, it sends a message to young men who idolise him that you can carry on in this manner and get away with it.

Hearts may have suspended Thomson, and they may well now find a way of ending his employment, neatly using the excuse of unsubstantiated revelations in yesterday's tabloid press, but frankly it is too little too late.

They should have fired him the moment he was convicted. Perhaps they were hoping that it would all blow over and that, after a quiet summer, everyone would have forgotten who Craig Thomson is and they could quietly snuck him back onto the football pitch.

Perhaps Hearts thought we would forget about Thomson in the way that he forgot about his victims. Hearts, it would seem, has grossly under-estimated the length of the Scottish people's memory, and their ability to stand up for what they believe in.