Interview: Leslie Deans dreams of Atlantic League for Hearts in a post-Vlad world

Former chairman calls for revamp and asks Romanov to write off debt

These are testing times for Hearts but it needn’t be all doom and gloom, according to two former chairmen of the Gorgie side. Leslie Deans and George Foulkes care deeply about the club. The pair helped facilitate Vladimir Romanov’s accession to the Tynecastle throne and are now anxious to ensure Hearts continue to thrive if and when the Lithuania-based banker sells up.

Anyone expressing an interest in assuming control will do so with caveats in place, according to Deans. The suggestion is that two interested parties are exploring the possibility of taking over Romanov’s majority shareholding. Neither has approached the owner nor have they made contact with anyone at the club but Deans says that, if an individual or group does pursue their interest, there will be certain provisos in place.

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Not only would the debt – which is estimated to be between £30m and £35m – have to be largely written off but Deans believes that there would also have to be an understanding that the new owners would be seeking to ensure a massive shake-up of the Scottish game as a whole to ensure the business would be sustainable.

“I think it is probably too early to say what will come of any interest being shown now,” says Deans. “Mr Romanov has made a lot of statements and comments about ‘Mafia’ and about people involved in football in this country and people will have their own views on that but I don’t think that Scottish football is the evil dragon it is made out to be. I think it is run in a transparent way, with honest principles. But there are still a number of things wrong with the football here.

“Clubs like Hearts have a tremendous heritage and a strong emotional pull but whoever takes over will have to look at things on a financial basis as well and for a club to be solvent it has to either reduce expenditure or increase income. I don’t think we can keep cutting staffing behind the scenes and there is a limit to the cuts we can make in wages if we want to remain competitive, so for me we have to look at ways of increasing income and to do that we have to create the interest in the game again.”

He believes the best way to do that is to shake off the shackles of the SPL and investigate the possibility of resurrecting the idea of a multi-nation league, or so-called Atlantic League, combining with the best clubs in the likes of Holland, Portugal and Belgium.

“The problem is football has changed,” continued Deans. “In the days my dad used to line up outside the ground at 1:30pm, waiting for the turnstiles to open, there wasn’t anything else for the men to be doing on a Saturday afternoon, but now there are so many other things vying for people’s time we have to make sure the product is good enough to keep people coming along.

“And that’s what I mean about getting things changed. No disrespect to the likes of St Johnstone or Hamilton or St Mirren but think about it, what is the more attractive fixture list, one where we have Hearts v St Johnstone, Hamilton v Rangers, Celtic v St Mirren or one where we have Standard Liege v Celtic, Rangers v Feyenoord, Hearts v Ajax, Benfica v Aberdeen? We always have been a football nation and I think if we have the right product there then we can get a better television deal, we can get more fans wanting to come back to games and we can stimulate a greater interest in football again within the media, the corporate world and within society.”

But he warns any takeover will stall if Romanov does not absorb at least a portion of the current debt. He acknowledges that the banker was the only show in town when the club desperately needed a saviour seven years ago but says his place in Hearts history will be coloured by what he does now.

“If he writes off some of the debt, moving it to another area of his empire, then he can walk away a hero, if not then we will have to see how history will judge his time in charge. If we are being realistic, without that happening I’m not sure who would be willing to come in or who could come in. Do your sums, if there is a debt of £35m and then the stadium issue on top of that – and we have to have players, so there are those salaries and current contracts to honour – add it all up and you are looking at needing £55-60m. So at least some of the debt would have to be written off, I can’t see any other way. But no one knows yet if Mr Romanov is willing or able to do that. Only once that is known will we be able to see where current interest leads.”

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Foulkes, club chairman at the start of Romanov’s reign, said that the current plight of the club meant that Hearts fans would be far more willing to countenance a move from Tynecastle now than they would have been at the end of the Chris Robinson era, but he rejected suggestions that there was greater apathy among Hearts fans these days. He also denied that a ground switch was the only option.

Foulkes said he had spoken to those responsible for the three new stands already up at Tynecastle and had been informed that there were plans for the proposed replacement main stand. He said that they guaranteed that it could be constructed through the close season and the new corporate facilities would be open for the new campaign. Foulkes said that by capturing interest from the corporate world, as well as upping the sale of season tickets, Hearts could again offer sustainable wages and challenge at the top.

“We are in a better position now than we were six to seven years ago,” he said, despite the stadium issue and the fact the debt has increased. “I think we are a more attractive proposition. Romanov has done some positive things. He has shown the potential of the club and proved that we can be competitive. When Phil Anderton was chief executive, with good marketing season ticket sales went up 50 per cent and George Burley showed what could be done on the field before Vladimir Romanov got jealous.

“But we can challenge in the league, win cup finals and get into Europe. We have a loyal fanbase of between 11,000 and 15,000 but the potential is there to have 25,000 every game.”

But to do that and guarantee the kind of quality on the field which will excite fans and ensure the level of consistency needed to prove competitive, money will need to be spent on the playing staff. But by streamlining the squad and going with a greater mix of homegrown talent and quality buy-ins, Foulkes insists it is viable.

While Deans is wary of attempting to keep up with the Joneses, either in Glasgow or England, he and Foulkes are agreed that change needs to happen soon.

Foulkes believes strides will be made in “weeks rather than months”, while Deans says that it is more likely that any handover could take “three to four months”.

They agree it has to be hurried through before the new season.

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“That would be in everyone’s interests,” said Deans. “Vladimir Romanov has made it clear he has lost interest in the club and the transfer of power would allow both the club and the current owner to move on.

“We have to do that before there is a mass exodus – of players and fans.”