Stuart Bathgate: Romanov kept club alive but now Hearts are paying the price

All smilesi n the past but Vladimir Romanov's stance has changed
All smilesi n the past but Vladimir Romanov's stance has changed
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IT HAS become a hand-to-mouth existence as the share offer is superseded.

Less than six months ago, 100,000 Hearts supporters lined the streets of Edinburgh to celebrate their club’s Scottish Cup triumph against Hibernian. Today, they are coming to terms with the possibility that the 
trophy won that day in May could be Hearts’ last, and that the club which began life in 1874 may not see out the year.

Whatever happens from now on, that 5-1 victory in the first all-Edinburgh final for 116 years will remain etched in history. But it could have been a milestone pointing the way to further 
glories; instead, it may become a gravestone, commemorating a once-proud club. By the time the cup final came around it was already known that Hearts were about to undergo a period of retrenchment, as several leading players had been told their contracts would not be renewed. A process of cutbacks, begun piecemeal some years earlier once the club decided an annual wage bill approaching £10million was unsustainable, was becoming more systematic. It looked like a regrettable necessity.

Just a few weeks ago, John McGlynn, who took over as manager in the summer, described the process as the “biggest repair job” at Tynecastle since the 1970s. It now looks far more like a car crash: one in which Vladimir Romanov is at the wheel. The Kaunas-based businessman had many detractors since his company Ubig took control of Hearts in 2005, yet it has always been recognised that he has extended Hearts’ life at their present home for seven years more than his predecessor would have done. But keeping Hearts alive has come at a cost. Despite several moves designed to inject money into the club, its debt today, at £22m, is more or less the same as when Chris Robinson decided the only way to deal with it was to sell up.

Year after year we were told by Romanov’s adherents that such a high figure was only academic. That because Hearts owed that debt to Romanov’s bank, it was essentially the same as owing yourself money.

In boom times that might be true enough. If a parent company is making hundreds of millions in profit every year, it can afford the odd profligate offspring. But these are not boom times. Not for Hearts, and not for Ubig. Romanov tacitly acknowledged that a year ago when he said he wanted out of football and would listen to 
offers for Hearts. None came.

At the same time, he said that no new funding would be given to the club, which would have to learn to live within its means. It could have been worse. He could have pulled the plug straight away, as he did with FBK Kaunas when he lost interest in them.

When he did not, his policy of disengagement was seen by many, this writer included, as rational and well intentioned. Since then, however, further evidence has emerged of Ubig’s less than rational approach. The bill for unpaid tax revealed recently was worrying enough: that stands at £1.75m, but Hearts have said they will contest it vigorously. But yesterday’s winding-up order, although for a far smaller sum, is far more serious. Hearts have eight days in which to pay a bill of almost £450,000, or at least to agree a schedule for repayment with Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. They don’t have the money themselves, and it looks like Ubig no longer have that kind of cash to throw at what was once Romanov’s pet project.

Hence a second appeal to fans in a matter of weeks. The first, an invitation to buy up to ten per cent of Ubig’s shareholding in the club, is actually meant to run until just before Christmas. But now, according to a statement by the board, Hearts might not exist in their present form even up to the end of this month. And so they issued yesterday’s even more urgent appeal. Buy shares. Buy tickets for the club’s forthcoming home games. Do everything you can.

That sums up the hand-to-mouth nature of the enterprise. Months of careful planning, we were told, went into the share offer. But that strategy has been superseded. Romanov’s dream of European glory with Hearts died some time ago. The global financial crisis got under way a while back. But still, even now, Ubig is running the club with panic measures.

The Hearts fans who turned out in May to cheer on their heroes deserve better. The club is the third largest in Scotland, and if run properly it could thrive both on and off the field. Romanov and his lieutenants have squandered the opportunity to put Hearts back on their feet after the Robinson era. And, while quick enough now to ask fans for money, they have been inexcusably slow in coming up with a proper, coherent plan for the club’s future.