Tom English: The happenings at Hearts

Administrators Bryan Jackson and Trevor Birch speak to the press about the current situation with Hearts. Picture: SNS
Administrators Bryan Jackson and Trevor Birch speak to the press about the current situation with Hearts. Picture: SNS
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IT’S hard to know how many groups are serious about bidding for Hearts.

The number of interested parties varies between two and four depending on who you speak to. Without question, we know that Gordon McKie’s group are not only on the scene but would also appear to have carried out months of information gathering at Tynecastle and we also know of the ambitions of the Foundation of Hearts and their drive to turn supporter pledges into hard cash. Their work has been well documented for many months now.

No matter how many groups there may be, they have one common goal and that is to save the club. They surely also have one common fear and that is that the machinations of buying the thing will drag on beyond a critical date, 31 August. That’s transfer deadline day and it is a hugely relevant point in the Hearts story in the short-term. If the club is not out of administration and in new hands at that point then the transfer embargo will remain in place and Hearts will be forced to play at least half a season with a drastically weakened squad, with severely limited chances of avoiding relegation. They begin the new season 15 points worse off than their rivals on account of falling into administration. They need new blood in the dressing room if they are to stand a chance of overturning the deficit.

When Bryan Jackson, the administrator with BDO, spoke on Thursday about the whole process taking around three to four months it is safe to say that there was a sharp intake of breath among those groups who may wish to bid for the club. Three to four months takes Hearts well past the transfer deadline day, denying opportunity to boost the squad with experience for the relegation dogfight to come.

There is a core of hard-nosed professionals still remaining in the dressing room at Tynecastle but they are thin on the ground and they are getting thinner all the time. In an uncertain world there can be no doubt that some of those experienced campaigners will be exploring their options elsewhere right now. By the time the new season comes around, the Hearts first team might be even younger than it was at the end of the last season – and it was pretty babyish then.

Hearts played Aberdeen on the final day of the season just gone. In the starting line-up were Dylan McGowan, Jason Holt, David Smith, Kevin McHattie, Dale Carrick and Michael Ngoo – all of them decent players but none older than 21. There are two teenagers in that group and there were three more on the substitutes’ bench that day as well. Plus Brad McKay, who had only turned 20 a few months before. Unless a new buyer is in place and new players are found, these callow individuals – with the exception of Ngoo who has returned to Liverpool – are going to be charged with the job of keeping Hearts in the SPL.

Some might see that as an impossible job, the prospective bidders included, perhaps. Picture this vision of the future. It is September or October and BDO have just completed all their preparatory work and are ready to close a deal with a bidder. But Hearts are languishing at the foot of the SPL. Their kids have taken some pummellings and the 15-point deficit has grown. Relegation is a certainty. The rest of the season a joyless grind, a marketing man’s worst nightmare. Why would you pour millions into such an operation when you know that the club’s top-tier fate is sealed?

What then? They compete in the second tier of Scottish football the following season where they will have Rangers for company. The Ibrox club would be deemed favourites for automatic promotion. Hearts would have a second bite by way of the play-offs, but their promotion would be far from certain. The thought of a miserable season this year and one or even two seasons in the First Division – or whatever the second tier is to be called – is not an enthralling prospect for any investor save for the unconditional men and women of the Foundation of Hearts, but that group cannot hope to go it alone. They don’t have the financial backing to do so.

If the club cannot get itself out of administration and relegation (and possible humiliation) becomes a formality for Hearts in the coming season, then where stands the McKie group?

He won’t say, probably because he doesn’t want to publicly apply pressure on BDO to get a move on. He knows that this process will take a minimum of six to eight weeks and that’s a best-case scenario. BDO have statutory duties to perform by law. They have to explore the business as it currently stands. They have to examine every bid they may get in microscopic detail before they decide who is the preferred option. This stuff takes time, but there isn’t a lot of it, not if that transfer deadline day is to be hit, which it must if Hearts are to give themselves a fighting chance of survival in the SPL next season.

“If Hearts don’t get players in then it’s a nightmare for a new owner, whoever that may be, and it’s a nightmare for the fans, the sponsors and the players as well because some of these young boys could be destroyed psychologically,” says McKie, left. “You’d be putting a huge burden on them. And it’s a nightmare for the SPL, too. The SPL needs a competitive Hearts team. Now, it’s going to be a struggle no matter what, but starting off with minus 15 points makes it even harder, but we’re ready to absorb that. Teams have come back from 15 points behind before. It’s also a great marketing opportunity. ‘Backs to the wall – can we do it?’ Everybody would rally round that cause. Providing the team can be competitive, it’s a huge challenge and an opportunity.”

BDO know only too well the importance of time in all of this. They’ve got work to do. Behind the scenes, all interested parties will be praying that their three-to-four-month projection can be cut.

You could say that it has to be, if Hearts are to emerge from this Romanov-induced nightmare any time soon.