THE statement about players’ wages which Hearts released yesterday was an illuminating one – although not in the way the club intended. By saying that 33 players had been paid – and that “the remaining players will be paid at the next earliest opportunity” – Hearts sought to downplay the problem of unpaid salaries. Instead, by reminding us of the bloated size of their football staff, they highlighted the wastage which continues under Vladimir Romanov.
The 33 are all, or nearly all, young fringe players. The unpaid remainder are not just an unlucky few: they are nearly every member of the first-team squad. According to the club’s own website, there are 53 players on the books at Tynecastle, including some who are currently out on loan.
Romanov has come to the conclusion over the last month or so that the cost of running Hearts is too high, but anyone could have told him that. Indeed, lots of people have been telling him that for years, with particular reference to the unmanageable size of the squad, and the money they earn compared to the club’s turnover.
As far back as 2007, the PricewaterhouseCooper annual report on the SPL warned that Hearts’ wages-to-turnover ratio was perilously high. Using the figures for season 2005-06, that 2007 report said the ratio had increased to 97 per cent, with the wage bill topping £10million. Turnover had gone up by £1.8m, but the net debt had increased by almost £7m.
In 2008, it was reported that Hearts had had the largest loss in the SPL at just under £13m. That was mainly due to a £12.5m wage bill, which vastly exceeded the club’s income for the year of £10.3m.
In other words, the wages-to-turnover ratio had crashed through the 100 per cent “barrier”. The players alone were costing more than the club was bringing in.
The 2009 report said that the ratio remained above 120 per cent. Last year it was up to 126 per cent – a ratio that the report said was “wholly unsustainable in the medium to long term”.
A concerted programme of cost-cutting over the past year has got that ratio down to a position where it is now believed to be close to 100 per cent. That is a step in the right direction but there is still a long way to go. The ratio which report author David Glen recommends as a healthy one is just 60 per cent.
Under Romanov, Hearts have overspent on players in two ways. First, by recruiting too many, and second, by lavishing money on a favoured few.
With just one first team and one under-19 side, Hearts do not need 53 players. A lot of them just get in the way, cluttering up the club’s training facility at Riccarton for a time until being sent out on loan. Manager after manager has complained about excessive numbers, and yet Romanov has continued to recruit them in bulk, most memorably during one transfer window when 11 new signings came in – some, it was said, without even being seen by anyone at the club.
In the Romanov era, Hearts have consistently had the biggest squad in Scotland outside the Old Firm. Even now, that 53 is within a handful of the 57 Celtic currently list in their first-team and under-19 squads. And Celtic, it need hardly be said, have a far higher turnover.
Hearts legend John Robertson, who was Romanov’s first manager, looked forward this week to a possible leaner, fitter future for his old club once the current problems are over. “I would love to see Hearts going back to being sustainable, with 20 first-team squad players, three goalkeepers and then the rest made up with their good, young players coming through,” the East Fife manager said, comparing that to a “45-man first-team squad on wages they can’t afford to pay and never will be able to afford to pay.”
What is more, while the number of players is wasteful enough, the fees paid for some, and the wages then doled out to them, were even worse.
Mirsad Beslija, for example, was Hearts’ record signing at £750,000. Dogged by injury, he only played a handful of games, and became the subject of a lengthy wrangle when Hearts got behind in their transfer payments to Racing Genk. Mauricio Pinilla was another costly recruit. Undeniably talented – he is now playing for Palermo in Serie A – he did little at Tynecastle other than collect a very large salary. Laryea Kingston’s salary was commensurate with his great ability but out of all proportion to what he actually delivered for Hearts. Christian Nade cost £500,000 from Crystal Palace and further large sum in wages – for almost nothing in return.
If Romanov’s supposed strategy of bringing players through then selling them on at a profit had worked, the inflated nature of the squad would have been excusable.
But, while the sales of Craig Gordon and Lee Wallace brought in millions, many other players have failed to live up to their promise.
Take Jamie Mole. The striker made his debut in the lofty surroundings of a Champions League tie in Athens, but then drifted down the pecking order and was loaned out to Dunfermline and Raith, among other clubs. He is now at non-league Blyth Spartans in the north east of England .
Romanov, tired of football, may now blame the Hearts players for taking too much money out of the club. But they were signed on his say-so, on contracts which also met his approval so, in reality, he has no-one to blame but himself.