A club left “devastated” was how Hearts manager Robbie Neilson described the mood within Hearts following their excruciatingly Europa League exit at the hands of Maltese side Birkirkara.
To a section of the support on the outside, Neilson should now be defenestrated through presiding over an unforgivable 2-1 defeat at Tynecastle the other night – a reverse that allowed their opponents to reach a third qualifying round in Europe for the first time in 19 attempts.
All of a sudden the Gorgie club are experiencing real summer strife. Yet, Bryan Jackson affords himself a rueful smile when assessing such claims. He became Scotland’s go-to man for clubs collapsing through spending beyond their means. And seared within his mind is the is the summer strife only three years ago that resulted in Hearts coming within a whisker of losing their fight to survive in their current form.
“I think about the Hearts supporters getting agitated now about not progressing in Europe, and then I think about what they were saying to me when I was appointed in June 2013,” says Jackson, who then took on the club after its long-inevitable plunge into administration caused by the collapse of owner Vladimir Romanov’s business empire, which included the two Lithuanian banks that had propped the Tynecastle side up. “The fans then all pleaded with me, ‘We don’t care if we get relegated, we don’t care how long it takes to come back up, just save the club from liquidation’. Now, the demands are top six and European runs. A testament to the remarkable job and amazing recovery under owner Ann Budge.”
Jackson is now a consultant in the Glasgow office of Johnston Carmichael. In that role he is on-hand to advise Supporters Direct on any fan-led buy-outs, which he believes in – with certain caveats about the “right supporters assuming control”. People like Budge, indeed. Jackson became a household name for football fans in this country through his efforts in guiding such as Motherwell, Dundee, Dunfermline, Portsmouth and Hearts through “the painful process” of administration; a process that caused the respected insolvency expert plenty of personal grief.
However, for adding years to his countenance, no task came close to that what he faced up in preventing Hearts being forced down the newco route, which he believes could have left them without a place in the league structure for potentially a season before starting again in the fourth tier only last summer.
Not one of his seven football administrations he conducted – first at PKF, and then, following its merger, with BDO – across 14 years ended with liquidation. The escapology he performed at Hearts, though, has given him greatest satisfaction, greatest gratification because of the intractable nature of the issues.
“I don’t think anyone quite appreciates how close Hearts were from being liquidated. Even to the last second,” Jackson stresses. In that context, obtaining the shares held by Ukio Bankas and Ukio Bankas Investment Group, both in administration, is what Jackson considers might be his greatest feat in his professional career.
He talks of going home and “lying down and crying in a darkened room” and of his wife then “slapping” him about the head and saying, “I told you not to take that job” after he stepped in for what proved 51 weeks from when Hearts crashed in June 2012. They did so with season book money spent, only £7,000 in the bank, unpaid debts, no games to play, and no players sales in the offing. With the Lithuanian dimension he decided to pursue a CVA before obtaining the shareholding held by the two banks. With the Foundation of Hearts stepping up, the club agreed a CVA in December. “Yet what gave me a terrible pain in my gut was that we hadn’t even surmounted the major obstacles by then – getting these shares,” Jackson says, with a shudder.
In the next six months, as Hearts vainly battled relegation from the top flight, Jackson vainly battled to get the shares from Lithuania. He spent overnights in lawyer’s offices, dealt with various ambassadors and politicians, but eventually everything came down to a meeting with the creditors of the Lithuanian banks.
“One of them was set to get a nominal ransom sum and the other £2.5million, when they had in their mind aspiration of double that figure. Essentially then, one had nothing to gain by voting for the share transfer, though equally voting against it would serve no interest.”
The meeting that he eventually set up with them just before the final, final deadline was prefaced by a sobering chat with a lawyer over there who dealt with the entire process. “He gave me the name of the big Lithuanian basketball team in Vilnius and asked if I knew them. I had never heard of them. How would you feel if you lived Edinburgh and heard they were going down owing you money, he said. I took his point. These people, the lawyers stressed – a collection of individuals and companies from a different culture and different walks of life – don’t care about Hearts. You have to convince them they should [care] enough to vote the way you want. And through an interpreter you must speak clearly and in short sentences.
“I went into that meeting, started by expressing my great thanks at them giving me a hearing and then set out the history of Hearts, how this 140-year club, one of the oldest in the world, means so much to so many supporters in the great city of Edinburgh. I do take pride in the outcome my efforts achieved, but my pride above all, and what will live with most, is the way the Hearts support rallied to the rescue in phenomenal ways.”
Yet, with football insolvencies, clubs do not want reminded of their ill-health and it becomes all about the new owner. In Budge, Jackson believes Hearts have a special one. “She has done incredibly well because she has taken her business skills and experience and succeeded in bringing it into the football industry and the good thing about her coming in is that she can look at things in a fresh way.
“She doesn’t have the baggage of the past, isn’t tied to how the market place used to be, and so is more questioning: why are we do this? What is the purpose of that approach? From what I can see she has taken the emotion out of the job and is governed solely by making the right decisions. If you see what she has done so far, you can hardly fault it.
“I liken going through administration to having an operation on your hip. You have all this pain in your hip, but you don’t want to go for an operation, so you put it off and put it off, bury your head and try and keep going. That happens in most companies – including football clubs. Eventually it is forced on you as you can’t walk any more or are in so much pain. At that point you realise you might not want the operation but you need to take the short term pain for the hope of better in the long run. You get the operation and then need to have three to six months to recover. Well, some people recover very quickly. Others will require a couple of years because it might not mend, or whatever.
“You look at the recovery at Dundee, it was pretty good and pretty quick. Dunfermline, well that hip took a wee bit longer. Got back up one tier and now pushing on. Then you look at Hearts. The guy that had the high operation walked out of the hospital and was running in a couple of weeks.”
A shooting pain might have developed down one side for Hearts this week. But it’s hardly debilitating.