As the threat of relegation haunts Hearts, they received words of support from Celtic manager Neil Lennon, who said losing the Tynecastle team from the top flight would be the “last thing” Scottish football needs.
An SPL board meeting has been scheduled at Hampden Park for 9am, when the governing body’s lawyers will attempt to explain the details surrounding Hearts’ labyrinthine financial plight in the wake of Ukio Banko Investicine Grupe’s [UBIG] request to be declared insolvent in Lithuania.
Tke key question is whether UBIG have indeed suffered an insolvency event, and if so, whether it occurred before the end of office hours yesterday – the deadline for sanctions relating to the current season to be imposed. Under new rules introduced last summer, Hearts could be found to have broken financial regulations, although the SPL’s lawyers must first decide if UBIG’s 79 per cent share in the Tynecastle club equates to the company being owner and operator of the football club, or whether Heart of Midlothian PLC is the owner and operator.
It is understood that Hearts have not received any financial support from UBIG, the club’s parent company, for as long as 15 months. After Ukio Bankas collapsed in Lithuania with debts of over £300 million, Hearts officials were told that there has been no breach of rule A6.12, which applies to any “group undertaking” of an owner and operator of a club suffering insolvency. Ukio Bankas, which was owned by Hearts’ majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov, was described by a Hearts spokesperson as being neither “owner nor operator” of the Tynecastle club earlier this week.
However, according to league rules, Hearts could face being deducted 18 points, a third of last season’s total, if UBIG is deemed to be in control of the club. This would leave Hearts below relegated Dundee, who are 13 points adrift at the bottom of the league.
If UBIG’s liquidation is deemed not to have been confirmed until after yesterday’s deadline, then Hearts could begin next season in the SPL, but with a points total that is minus a third of this season’s tally, which currently stands at 43. Hearts face Aberdeen this afternoon in their final league match of a rollercoaster season.
Lennon, meanwhile, is fearful of the financial consequences for the SPL as a whole if they lose one of their biggest assets for the second successive year following Rangers’ financial collapse last summer. “The last thing we need is another big club going out of the SPL,” said Lennon. “It is the crowds that Hearts bring to our game, particularly at Tynecastle, that we don’t want to lose.
“Whenever we go there, it is predominantly a full house. I also went to the Scottish Cup final as a neutral last summer, when they played Hibs, and the spectacle was fantastic.”
Lennon reserves his greatest sympathy for the Hearts playing staff. “Those players have had it rough over the past few years,” added Lennon. “There was a spell when they weren’t getting paid every month. They have shown tremendous loyalty in the circumstances.”
The SPL board will meet on Monday following a general meeting of all 12 clubs at which a vote on the revised league reconstruction proposal may be taken.
Along with a reunified single league body and improved financial distribution model for second tier clubs, the plan also includes the introduction of play-offs for an extra relegation-promotion place between the top flight and second tier.
Although his club are unlikely to ever be involved in such a scenario, Lennon says the introduction of play-offs is long overdue. “It is baffling why they haven’t been brought in sooner in Scotland,” said Lennon. “I went down to the Watford-Leicester City play-off match last Sunday and it was incredible drama. But there have been loads of amazing finishes like that in the play-off games down the years. The interest and income they generate are fantastic.”