IF THERE is one glaring difference between Hearts as they are run now and the club as it was under Vladimir Romanov, it is surely the absolute stability behind the scenes. The team won two trophies and enjoyed some successful seasons when the Lithuanian businessman was in charge, but off the field, disorder was never far away.
Now, with Ann Budge at the helm, there is no drama, no disorganisation, and – perhaps most importantly for Robbie Neilson’s squad – no delays in receiving their salaries. The players who were at the club in the Romanov era had to endure regular, lengthy waits for their pay, and those who are still there now are very grateful for the difference under the new regime.
“As much as boys wanted to say in the press we were focusing, it was obviously difficult,” defender Brad McKay said this week. “There was no understanding or communication. It was difficult, but now it’s run completely differently and it’s for the greater good.
“I know the annual meetings [of the club and of the Foundation of Hearts] have gone well and Ann’s done great since she’s come in. There’s an understanding now between the manager and the owner and Craig [Levein, the director of football], and even the backroom staff. Everything’s clicking for us and hopefully it continues.”
Having been at Tynecastle for nearly five years, McKay experienced the slow, painful collapse of the Romanov administration. Careful management of his finances meant that he did not experience any severe deprivation during those long wage delays, but he knows colleagues who did.
“You try not to think about it, but when you come in every other day and you’re told your wages aren’t coming until next week, and then next week comes… It was something like eight and a half weeks we waited for wages when we went into administration. It’s obviously not great and it played a part.
“I know it’s difficult when you’re not getting paid, but you get through it – you’ve got friends and family. It’s obviously more difficult for the younger guys. For the guys that weren’t getting paid as much, eight and a half weeks is a hell of a long time to wait for money. But they’ve got families, and people can help you out.”
Still only 21, McKay has had more testing experiences off the field than many players will have in their whole careers, and those trials continued last season, with the club being in administration throughout. That campaign was not without its high points, but in the end the threadbare squad could not overcome the 15-point penalty with which they began, and relegation followed.
“There were very difficult times and results, like the 7-0 defeat to Celtic and a few others. We’ve come a long, long way since then. The club’s stripped everything back, from top to bottom, and I think it’s working well. I think it will be the makings of this club.
“On the park we’re getting the results and off the park we’re going well as well. Last season we got the gap close and then things started to go badly off the park again, and we lost a few important games. But things are going well on the park and off the park, and long may it continue.”
Seventeen games into the Championship programme, Hearts remain undefeated in the league, with their only defeats having come in the League and Scottish Cups, both to Celtic, and in the Petrofac to the team they visit today, Livingston. It was by and large a second-string Hearts team that lost that game 4-1, with McKay, Jordan McGhee, Scott Robinson and James Keatings the only first-team regulars.
“Obviously that was a difficult game for us,” McKay remembered. “There was something like eight or nine debutants. They’re all young guys and it was a learning curve for us.
“But we’ve got an almost full-strength squad and possibly Soufian El Hassnaoui coming back in at the weekend, and it will be a different challenge for us, but hopefully one we can take three points from.”
In the teams’ first league meeting of the season, at Tynecastle at the end of September, a full-strength Hearts side won 5-0, and it would be a surprise if they fail to pick up another three points this afternoon against their bottom-of-the-table hosts. If they do win, they will stretch their lead over at least one of the chasing clubs, with Hibernian and Rangers meeting at lunchtime. A home win at Easter Road and a Hearts victory in West Lothian would take the leaders’ advantage over second-placed Rangers to 15 points, but McKay insisted there was not even a trace of complacency in the dressing room, for all that the club’s supporters are understandably very confident about the look of the league table.
“I don’t really like when people say ‘Mind the gap’ and ‘The league’s over before Christmas’. I know all the boys in the team feel the same way. We’ll keep plodding away and picking up results and that starts on Saturday. We want to win every game and we go into every game with the intention to win.
“I don’t think that will change just because we’re 12 points clear. If anything we’ll want to build on it.”