SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster ruled out any relaxation of the transfer embargo that has left Hearts manager Gary Locke operating with a threadbare squad – one that was left further depleted yesterday by news that Jamie Walker could be sidelined for as long as ten weeks with a broken bone in his foot.
Doncaster’s declaration dashed the hopes of the club’s managing director David Southern, who was present at Hampden yesterday for a meeting with fellow league clubs and emerged to find that the SPFL board had not discussed Hearts’ situation during their own summit. However, the league chief did at least confirm that any legitimate application for a new player registration would be considered, as long as it fulfils the criteria of Rule E16.1, which relates to a policy of “one in, one out”.
However, Hearts will not be allowed to replace any player who is injured while still on their books, and if Locke wants to replace a player whose registration has been cancelled during the transfer window – such as Adam King, who is close to signing for Swansea City – he will only be able to recruit a replacement who is aged 21 or under. That is because the club remains subject to a blanket SFA ban on registrations, imposed by the body’s independent judicial panel, which expires on 1 February, the day after the window closes.
A Hearts insider told The Scotsman last night that Locke and the administrators would get straight to work on applying for “one in, one out” transactions before the week is out. There are five players who have left the club who could, in theory, be replaced if Locke had time to identify replacements: Andy Driver, John Sutton, Marius Zaliukas and two youth players.
That is unlikely to be a speedy process, though, and with only 17 days of the transfer window remaining, it seems clear that Locke will have more chance of strengthening his playing pool if he waits until February to shop on the free-agent market, again under the confines of Rule E16.1.
Bryan Jackson, the club’s administrator, said: “The SPFL have explained to me that they will consider applications for new players to be brought in on the one-in, one-out policy but that we have to make a formal application detailing which players would be coming in and which ones would be going out.
“I understand and accept the league’s position and we will now get to work on applications.”
Hearts, rooted to the foot of the Scottish Premiership and still with a negative points total after starting the season with a 15-point handicap, had asked for a partial lifting of the signing ban imposed by the SPFL following their descent into administration last summer.
As part of his argument for leniency, Jackson cited health and safety concerns over the club’s young players. But the club officials who had expected their case to be heard by league directors yesterday were operating under a misapprehension.
“The board did not discuss the Hearts situation at all today,” said Doncaster after the SPFL board meeting. “The situation is that late last Friday, the administrators at Hearts put forward a broad request for us to consider allowing the registration of a particular player.
“The rules are quite clear as to what the board can and cannot do. They can consider applications for individual players to be registered but to consider those applications they do need to see a copy of the player’s contract and make it clear which player they are replacing.
“We haven’t had that and the board don’t have the flexibility to override that rule. That rule enabled Hearts to bring in Danny Wilson last January and last summer ten players were registered on the basis of one-in, one-out at Hearts. In some quarters it has been portrayed as an appeal against a decision but there is no appeal.
“In fact, there is no decision by the board. It is a general rule that affects all clubs in administration that prohibits them from signing new players other than bringing forward individual requests for players to be brought in on a one-in, one-out basis and if we get such an application, we can consider it at that point.
“There is a huge sympathy for Hearts players, supporters and indeed the administrators for the position they find themselves in. It is not their fault that they are in their position at the moment, but the rules are very clear.”
For Locke, even the confirmation that he may be able to replace every player he loses might bring a shard of light to his outlook after another dark day in one of the most challenging seasons in the club’s history.
It was confirmed yesterday that 20-year-old Walker has fractured a metatarsal bone, the same problem that has kept team-mate Jason Holt sidelined since mid-November. He will undergo surgery on Thursday and will miss a number of games including the 2 February League Cup semi-final against Inverness.
Locke said: “It didn’t look good for the lad on Saturday and now we know for sure. He’s had a scan and he’ll have surgery later this week. It’s just another blow for us which we’ll need to take on the chin.
“It gives an opportunity to someone else, but our are options are getting fewer. It’s the same type of injury which Jason Holt has. It’s a massive blow as he’s been one of the players giving us a goal threat this season. We have a few out through injury and illness and Jamie’s another one now to add to that list.”
It appears certain that Locke’s immediate problems will not be rectified and, ahead of Saturday’s trip to St Johnstone, captain Wilson is still doubtful with tonsillitis and left-back Kevin McHattie is struggling with a hamstring strain. Callum Tapping failed to make it off the bench at the weekend due to a bug, and Scott Robinson will serve a ban in Perth.