Paulo Sergio’s connection with Hearts fans is undiminished eight years since he left Edinburgh. Even from Portugal’s Algarve town of Portimao, he can empathise with the disgust amongst the club’s supporters right now.
Whether you call it relegation, demotion, ejection or expulsion, the Scottish Professional Football League’s decision to send Hearts down to the Championship following the coronavirus shutdown has provoked huge anger in Gorgie.
Sergio is fighting his own relegation battle as head coach of the Portuguese Primeira Liga side Portimonense. Yet he remains in tune with events in Scotland and the atmosphere around the club where he became a legend after Scottish Cup success in 2012.
The 52-year-old shares the dismay and knows feelings on how the SPFL have treated Hearts will not be easily erased from supporters’ memory banks.
“Hearts fans will never forget this. They are right to be angry,” said Sergio. “They will accept their team going to the second division if the league finishes and they are last because they did not win enough points.
“In this case, last place is being put into the second division without all the games being played – at a time when Hearts have invested in their stadium, new players and a new coach. If they don’t have the chance to fight for the results after this investment, then of course everybody will feel it is not fair. It’s not a relegation, it’s a demotion.”
Unlike Hearts and fellow relegated clubs Partick Thistle and Stranraer, Portimonense will get the opportunity to play for their survival. They sit second bottom of Portugal’s top flight and are six points adrift of the safety zone with ten games left.
The campaign is due to restart early next month. Sergio has only been in charge for four games and is grateful to at least have matches to determine his team’s fate. It is a luxury Hearts would dearly love. “We are going to play every four or five days and play all ten games inside one and a half months,” he explained. “It will be tough and it will be a risk, but at least they are giving us the chance to finish the league and fight for the points.
“I can’t understand how the SPFL deal with their partners, it’s not fair. I would say the same if it was Hibernian, St Mirren or anyone else in this position. I think it’s a shame that one of the biggest clubs in Scotland are treated like this.
“Hearts helps to make Scottish football stronger even if they have not had a good season. It’s a shame to put a club like Hearts in the second division without playing all the league games. I think other options should be used. It’s a very bad decision. If Hearts have to go down, they will fight to return to their place. I’m sure they will prepare better for the future than they did the last few years, but I think it’s a huge loss for the Premiership in Scotland to play without Hearts. The club is growing in infrastructure and want to improve Scottish football every year.
“To play the league without them should be a worry for the SPFL. It’s like when they did not have Rangers in the top division. I can’t understand why they treat a partner like Hearts in this way.”
League reconstruction and potential legal action are being looked at by the Hearts owner Ann Budge. She is eager to find a way to avoid the drop into the Championship, not least because her club would expect to lose up to £3 million in revenue.
Sergio takes small comfort from knowing the Tynecastle support will ensure Hearts survive this latest crisis.
“The fans helped save Hearts in the past and they will do it all their lives. They are fantastic. I’m sure they will help the club rebuild and return to the Premiership as soon as possible,” he said.
“Of course, the feeling at the moment is anger. This situation is not fair and it doesn’t matter if another team is in this position, I would say the same. It is not because Hearts are in this position.”
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