Hearts legend Donald Ford on way forward for club

Donald Ford goes in for a challenge on Hibs' Des Bremner. Picture: SNS
Donald Ford goes in for a challenge on Hibs' Des Bremner. Picture: SNS
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DONALD Ford is accustomed to hard times. He signed for Hearts in 1964, at the end of the most successful period in the club’s history and at the start of a long, slow decline that would culminate in relegation.

Having qualified as an accountant before turning professional, he has long been convinced that Scottish football has been run in an unsustainable way. He campaigned against former Hearts owner Chris Robinson, who argued the only way out of the club’s indebtedness was to sell Tynecastle and move to Murrayfield. And he was an early supporter of the Foundation of Hearts, the organisation which tried to buy the club from Vladimir Romanov, and which is now the preferred bidder to take it out of administration.

Still running a successful photography business, Donald Ford Images, from his home in Carnoustie, he stood down from the board of the Foundation two months ago because of pressure of work and the distances involved in travelling to meetings in Edinburgh. But he remains committed to the organisation’s principles, and is convinced that the sound economic planning in place will in time return Hearts to the higher ranks of the Premiership. Indeed, he is sure that if a club the size of Hearts can be owned by its fans and run prudently, it could provide an example for the rest of the game.

“I’m pretty confident we’re on the verge of a revolution here,” Ford says in a break from posting the last batch of 2014 calendars out to customers. “If all goes to plan, the takeover by the Foundation of Hearts could totally transform not only the football club at Tynecastle but the whole of Scottish football.

“We need a revolution, and Hearts supporters have shown it can all work by joining together in such numbers. If those supporters buy the club, and the quality of the professionals who then run it is what we’re looking for, other big clubs in Scotland will have to sit down and ask themselves ‘Should we follow Hearts’ example?’

“Financial sanity needs to break out in Scottish football. There are a lot of things that have not been right in the game over the past 40 years, and one of the biggest has been the financial madness which really accelerated in the 1990s. David Murray didn’t do other clubs any favours by piling money into players’ wages at Rangers. It’s not a sustainable way to run an industry, and it’s been a millstone round the necks of a lot of people.

“I’m sure some clubs have extremely good budgets and are very prudently run. And I know that the Foundation of Hearts has also carried out some sound financial planning, taking into account that the club may get relegated to the Championship and will by no means find it straightforward to bounce straight back to the Premiership.

“We need to get back to that kind of realistic budgeting throughout the game. And one way of doing that is by getting back closer to our communities and investing in youngsters again.

“That means working with kids aged nine, ten, 11, 12 and 13 and helping them develop their skills. I know a lot of clubs will tell you they have their academies for bringing through youngsters, but I’m not sure how many do it with enough boys of that age so they learn good practice early. It looks like Dundee United have done a very good job of it with the exciting young players in their first team now. But we need every club in the country to get out into the community and work with the kids.”

Working with the kids is, by necessity, what Hearts manager Gary Locke has been doing this season, as players who would normally be in the under-20s have been promoted to the first team because of the ban on signing new players while the club remains in administration. As a realist, Ford knows how hard it will be to avoid relegation, but he refuses to give up hope.

“Probably like everyone else, I can see they’re in a very serious position, nearly halfway through the season and still a lot of points adrift. They already have important players out injured, and it’s from this point of the season that injuries usually begin to take their toll on a squad – and we’re talking about squads of the usual size rather than the threadbare one that Gary Locke has had to deal with.

“So everything points to the probability that the team will really struggle to stay up. But there is still a possibility that they could turn things round.

“Every team has turns of fortunes, no matter how good or bad they are. Hearts have been on a bad run, but they don’t last forever.

“Then there’s the psychology of being behind in a race. Paradoxically, that’s often a healthier position to be in than leading and constantly worrying about being caught up.

“The boys are playing football with no worries, as young players usually do, and as long as they keep up that attitude there is always a chance that results could pick up.

“There is every likelihood that more financial problems will surface at other clubs. But, judging Hearts’ situation purely on the footballing side, it’s not looking good. Gary Locke, Billy Brown and John Robertson will have to use all the psychology they can think of to encourage the players.”

Born in 1944, Ford grew up in the days of the five-man forward line, and some of his own happiest times at Hearts were played in a 4-2-4 system, with Kenny Aird and Bobby Prentice out wide supplying the crosses for himself and Drew Busby. While hopeful that the Scottish game will soon be more efficiently run off the field, he is disillusioned by the standard of play, and thinks far too many youngsters are being encouraged to become midfielders.

“There are so few genuine attacking players now. Forty years ago, we took the field with four genuinely attacking players. Now it’s one on each side.

“It’s worrying, and it’s not working. It’s really quite sad. But the youngsters have never seen the skills of players like Willie Henderson, Ralph Brand or Jimmy O’Rourke, so they don’t know what they’re missing.”

Mention of O’Rourke, who was at Hibernian throughout most of Ford’s time at Hearts, brings the conversation round to events at Easter Road. Having been impressed by Terry Butcher’s ability to build a successful team on a modest budget, Ford is convinced the new Hibs manager is the right man for the job – provided the board of directors and the supporters accept that lasting improvements do not happen overnight.

“Terry Butcher’s track record at Inverness speaks for itself, and indicates that at some point in the future it’s all going to gel and this Hibs team will become very hard to beat. But there’s no guarantee.

“He clearly has man-management ability, and can turn ordinary players into very good players. But he knows it takes time to do that, and the hope is that he’ll be given time to do it.

“Building a successful team does not happen in ten minutes. If I think back to the great teams I knew growing up – the Hearts side of the 1950s, the Spurs team that won the double in 1961, then a little later Jock Stein’s Celtic side – in each case it took four or five years to build the team.

“And then there was Eddie Turnbull’s Hibs team that I played against in the first part of the 1970s. There were some fantastic players in that team, and why it didn’t win more over the three- or four-year period when it was at its peak I don’t know. They should have won a lot, lot more.”

The last Edinburgh derby, the League Cup quarter-final at the end of October, led to Pat Fenlon’s departure from Easter Road and Butcher’s subsequent installation. There has been little time since for the new man to do anything other than begin improving the team, but Ford has seen positive signs which, he believes, could tell in Hibs’ favour on Thursday night.

“In that League Cup game at Easter Road, Hearts should have been two or three down in the first 20 minutes. Then after all that Hibs pressure the inevitable happened – Ryan Stevenson scored that fantastic goal and the whole psychology of the game turned round. You could see Hibs going into their shells, whereas, if they had scored in that early period – and I don’t know how they didn’t – they would have believed they were going to go on and win.

“Since then Hibs have not had great results, but they have probably stabilised now. And Hearts have struggled, so it is very hard to predict a Hearts win.”

That, at least, is the short-term prediction. In the long run, however, Ford is convinced that a Foundation of Hearts takeover will be tantamount to a victory for the Tynecastle club, and have positive consequences well beyond Gorgie.