Top priority is just keeping Hearts alive, insists Paulo Sergio

HEARTS can overcome their present financial difficulties and emerge stronger, Paulo Sergio believes. Speaking yesterday at his first press conference since the club ended its media ban, the Portuguese manager also predicted that Hearts would avoid punitive sanctions from the SPL over unpaid salaries, saying he was sure they would be paid.

The Hearts players and coaching staff received their December salaries this week, hours after the SPL imposed a seven-day payment deadline. The league said it will also take action if payments are late in subsequent months, but Sergio expressed confidence in the board’s ability to find funding.

At the same time, he expressed his own commitment to the club. Although accepting that the loss of too many players during the transfer window could cause the team’s form to slump, he said he would do his best to keep Hearts competitive while integrating as many young players as necessary into the first team.

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“It is a problem that our board has to solve,” Sergio said, referring to club owner Vladimir Romanov’s insistence that the wage bill had to be cut, if necessary by selling off senior players. “I am sure we are not going to let die a club like this one.

“I am going to do everything I can do so the future of the club is alive and having success. I hope everyone around me is going to do the same.

“It is very clear for everyone in the club that we have to reduce costs. I don’t know if some player goes to another club, but what I know is that if we have some propositions maybe we have to sell or to put on loan to make these kinds of savings. Of course, I don’t want to lose players, but it’s not my decision.”

With three wins and a draw from their last four games, Hearts are back up to fourth in the table. But Sergio said that any thought of continuing to rise up the table was not as important as the need to sort out the finances and the squad to ensure that the club was on an even keel for next season.

“The main thing in this moment is not to go to third place or second place, but to put the club in a good position to survive and review all these in the next season. This changes our goals, but even in this position I want to be competitive and I believe I can do it with some young players.

“At some points I am frustrated, because I came here with some dreams and under different conditions, but it is an honest job too – to pick the young players and to make them believe we can win SPL games with young players and in a hard moment like this. If you look at our season, at the moment we are reaching a very good level. The problems started and we had five or six tough weeks – now we are on the way up.

“But, if I lose two, three or four players, we can be in trouble again. That’s not the way that we should work in football. But we work with what we have.

“Nobody can put a knife in my neck and say, ‘Hey, you have to finish third or second’ with the conditions we’re working in. That’s clear.

“I never have easy jobs. But it’s up to you. You can always make a choice – either you quit and go home or you fight and try to do things that you believe. If I was unhappy here, if I don’t feel the support of our fans and the people around me every single day, maybe I’m thinking to go home and look for another way in my life. But it’s not what happens. I can be happy here in Edinburgh. I love the city. I love the club.”

The Hearts squad eventually complained to the SPL via their union, PFA Scotland, after the club failed to pay them on time for the third consecutive month. The players had been on the verge of handing in a complaint in November, but were dissuaded from doing so by Sergio. Yesterday he said that, although he understood why they had complained, he still believed that the solution lay within the club, which has been put up for sale by Romanov, rather than with external bodies such as the SPL.

“It’s right that they have [complained], and they take a collective decision to do that. They weren’t happy, and they took a decision to make that complaint. If I was a player maybe I am doing the same.

“When they are doing that I would say to them that sometimes we are just making the publicity of the others, because I don’t believe anybody else outside the club can solve our problems. I believe that inside the club we have the solution. We have a delay in our wages, but I feel that people are fighting to put the wages in order. I don’t feel that our board went on holiday and don’t care about the problem. I feel they are trying to put the club in order, to create a strategy for the future.

“We have a challenge here to do and I want to win this challenge. I want to put this club in a good position and I am working on that.

“I believe that, in the end, we’re going to get paid – maybe sometimes with some delay but we will get paid every month. And the next seasons will be easier for everybody if you rebuild all the squad and put things in place with the money that Hearts have.

“They have more than enough to have a competitive squad without being in trouble like we are every single month now, because we’re spending more than we have. It’s the same in my house, your house. That’s what I’m trying to say to people, because Hearts has more than 100 years of history – and we want 1,000 years more. That’s the most important thing, not a trophy or something like that. It’s about keeping Hearts healthy. I think we can do that.’”

And, although Sergio foresees the process of adjustment going on until the start of next summer, he also thinks that Hearts will find the money to pay their players over the coming months, thus avoiding the threat of punishment from the SPL. “I don’t believe that is going to happen, because I believe we are going to get paid.

“I believe that a man like Romanov who has lots of businesses chooses people to find solutions for the problem. I don’t expect that Mr Romanov is not sleeping to find solutions for our problem. I think he has people in place to do that. In each business I think he has a board to find solutions for the problem. That’s what should happen.”

While new Wolves signing Eggert Jonsson is the only player to leave Tynecastle so far, Ryan Stevenson has refused to play for the club again in protest over his delayed wages. Sergio said he thought the problem had been cleared up earlier this week, only for the midfielder to change his mind again.

“He texted me to say he wants to come back and he texted [director of football] John Murray too. But yesterday things changed again. We had a meeting and he said no, he didn’t want to return. So, very confused at the moment about this problem.

“Personally, or with the team, I feel there’s never any problem [with Stevenson]. But I think he has to explain himself to the board, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.

“I respect Ryan: he’s a good player and he’s a very good guy too. When a man takes a decision, I respect. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t, but I respect.

“When we take a decision like this we should be sure what we are doing. At the first moment when he said to me he was going to do that, I tried to say to him don’t do a thing like that, because I believe it’s not good for him.”

Asked if he thought Stevenson had played his last game for the club, Sergio refused to commit himself. “I don’t know. In football, in life, things change every minute.”