Stuart Bathgate: Hearts need some TLC from fans

IF YOU want to know what the next five years of Hearts’ life could be like, take a look back at the last five of your own. Since the credit crunch began in 2008, many of us have had to cut back on everyday expenditure and cut out luxuries altogether – and we’ve been the lucky ones. Many have lost their jobs, others even their homes.

Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray hopes to put the Tynecastle club back on an even keel. Picture: SNS
Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray hopes to put the Tynecastle club back on an even keel. Picture: SNS

At Tynecastle, they were initially insulated from the worst effects of the financial crisis thanks to the continued support of Vladimir Romanov’s company Ubig. That support ended at the beginning of last year and, ever since, the club has faced massive uncertainty about its future.

And it’s not uncertainty as to whether Hearts will enjoy great success or relative failure in the coming years. It’s uncertainty about which of two roads the club will follow. Either cutting back on extravagant expense and learning to live more frugally or losing far more, possibly including its own home.

It’s not all gloom, of course. For the foreseeable future, Hearts will not be able to bring in the kind of player recruited under Romanov but there’s a positive side to that.

For every Rudi Skacel who does not sign on, a Ricardas Beniusis will also stay away. For every Takis Fyssas spectators at Tynecastle are denied, they will be spared a Nerijus Barasa.

In other words, the generosity of the club’s majority shareholder was often offset by his caprice. And it is a fair bet that any new owners will be more rational when they decide which players to sign.

But there is a side of football – perhaps its most appealing side – that has nothing to do with being rational and down to earth and living within your means. It’s about dreaming of watching your team winning major honours and hoping that good times are just around the corner.

Well, they’re not just around the corner at Hearts. And that’s a major problem for the various supporters’ groups, now united under the chairmanship of Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray, who plan to put in an offer for the club.

Offer someone the chance to dream and they’ll snap it up – that’s why the National Lottery sells so many tickets. Offer someone the “opportunity” to help fund some fairly mundane football, and you have a far harder selling proposition on your hands.

Murray knows that, which is why he has talked of the importance of managing expectations when trying to persuade supporters to make a monthly monetary pledge through the Foundation of Hearts website. He’s not saying “Give us a tenner a month and we’ll have a crack at the Champions League”. He’s saying “If enough of us pledge what we are able, we can get this club back on an even keel.”

Mundane survival is better than not being alive at all, and a fan-controlled club, provided it is run responsibly, can become far more stable and secure than one owned by an outside investor. The fans’ attempt to buy the club is essentially a defensive measure. It’s not about sparking a popular revolution that will sweep Hearts to power in Scottish football, it’s about keeping the club alive, sorting out its balance sheet, then trying to build from a firm financial foundation.

Since Romanov put the club up for sale towards the end of 2011, no white knight has emerged. And, if any potential purchaser were to turn up now, it is a fair bet they would be looking to make a quick profit out of a stricken business.

Hearts’ financial results for the year to June 2012, released at the weekend, showed that they are heading in the right direction. The loss of £1.65million was almost wholly caused by the settlement of a tax investigation.

Turnover went up by more than £1.5m and staff costs continued to fall. But, no matter how prudent the club are now being, they are still saddled with a £24.7m debt. Before anyone takes over from Romanov, that debt will need to be dealt with.

The £15m owed to Ukio Bankas, who are headed for bankruptcy, is the largest part of the debt and the one which causes the most acute problem.

There is no way the Ukio administrator could recoup that money from Hearts straightaway, but there is nothing in law to stop him from being as punitive as he likes in an attempt to reclaim as much of it as possible.

In reality, Hearts are probably worth more as a going concern than if their assets were sold off. The last valuation of Tynecastle was around £5m but that is dependent on what planning permission would be granted. An agreement by the administrator to accept some money now for the debt, possibly with an annual rent to allow the club to keep playing at Tynecastle, looks more plausible.

But saying that, on balance, Hearts will probably keep a roof over their heads is about as reassuring as we can realistically be at present.

What happens after that, whether the club is leaner and fitter or so impoverished that it is unlikely to ever fully recover, is down to the people who have always cared for it most.