Craig Thomson told to stay away from Hearts as sponsor pulls funding

Craig Thomson has been told to stay away from Hearts for the time being as the Tynecastle club seek to calm public outrage after they retained the player's services following his conviction for sex offences against two underage girls.

However, damage has already been done to the club's reputation as anger at how the situation had been handled increased yesterday. Hearts suffered two serious setbacks when a sponsor withdrew its support and a local primary school also stopped children attending coaching sessions run by the club at their Riccarton training base. A two-year sponsorship deal with MacB flavoured water suppliers, which was agreed in November last year, was yesterday cancelled at the company's request. The deal which saw MacB become the "official water sponsor of the team" was worth over 5000 to Hearts.

"As a company with strong family values, we are left with no choice but to terminate our relationship with the Hearts football club," said a spokesman for MacB. "Along with countless others, fans and co-sponsors alike, we are extremely disappointed with the club's handling of this situation and as a result can no longer continue our support." Hearts advertiser John Murray, of Paragon Trade Services, also described the situation as "disgusting and unacceptable". He is considering whether to withdraw his company's support for the club.

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The main sponsors of the club, financial company Wonga, though, have said that they will maintain their backing.

However, 50 schoolchildren from Pentland Primary School in Edinburgh did not make their planned trip to the club's training ground at Riccarton yesterday because of the decision to retain Thomson taken by the board on Friday.

The pupils of varying age groups had been having regular sessions at the club's training ground for the past year. Acting head teacher Carolyn McGinlay confirmed the decision, but said she could not comment further. However, the decision was supported by the city of Edinburgh Council, who said that Hearts "have a responsibility not only to safeguard children, but to actively promote the safeguarding of children". A spokesman for the local authority added: "We would urge Hearts to consider its handling of this matter in light of this paramount responsibility as we are keen to know how they see the situation and how they plan to manage it."

Hearts refused to comment further yesterday. Public opinion has turned heavily against the club, who released a statement on Friday which confirmed Thomson was being allowed to "continue his career as a professional footballer and ... will resume training with immediate effect".

The intention was for Thomson to train at the club's Riccarton academy while his team-mates were at a pre-season camp in Tuscany. However, he has now been told to work on his own fitness away from the club in order to escape the intensifying media furore.The club announced the result of their own investigation into the case at the end of last week and concluded that the 20-year old defender was guilty of "a grave error of judgement due to naivety and possible wrong outside influence rather than anything more sinister and it will not be repeated".

The statement ended with the instruction that the "matter is now closed". Nothing could be further from the truth after a weekend in which the club came under fire from the charity, Children 1st. "There is no place in our society for role models who have been convicted of sexual offences," said its chief executive Anne Houston.

Jim Jefferies, the Hearts manager, has also thrown doubt on whether Thomson would be picked to play for the first-team again. "We have to make sure that if Craig ever gets back in the team - and let's not forget there's competition for places - how will he handle what's coming to him?" he said. He also described the situation as the "worst thing I've ever had to deal with" during his time as a manager.

Thomson was moved to release another statement yesterday, further to the apology published on the official Hearts website on Friday and where he thanked the club for not bowing to the pressure from individuals and organisations "that were not in full possession of the facts surrounding my situation".

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He made another appeal last night, through his solicitor: "Craig Thomson would ask the Hearts fans and wider public to respect the judgement both of the court and Heart of Midlothian Football Club; to recognise that the sheriff who heard all the relevant facts and circumstances did not consider him to be a risk to the public and accordingly did not impose any restrictions on his movements or association with young people."

Meanwhile, former Hearts captain Gary Mackay is considering legal action over comments made in the second statement issued by the Hearts board of directors on Friday night. Mackay acts as an agent for several Hearts players, including Thomson.