Stuart Bathgate: The democratic solution for Hearts

Vladimir Romanov at Tynecastle with Sergejus Fedotovas. Picture: SNS
Vladimir Romanov at Tynecastle with Sergejus Fedotovas. Picture: SNS
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TWO cheers for democracy. When the novelist EM Forster coined that phrase back in 1939, he was referring not to Scottish football – a topic on which his opinions, alas, went unrecorded – but to politics in general.

Yet, as the future of one of our biggest clubs is again seen to depend on the caprice of one individual, it is perhaps worth remarking that what applies in outside life is just as relevant to our national game.

Forster offered two cheers, not three, because of course democracy is imperfect. But he gave those cheers nonetheless, knowing that the alternative is a lot worse.

When it comes to a football club, the alternative to supporters’ control is ownership by an individual or small group. They can be well intentioned and efficient, and can often carry on for decades as benevolent dictatorships. They bankroll the club, and believe with some justification that the money they put in entitles them to a degree of, if not total, control.

But sooner or later they make a decision which is in their interest, not that of the club, and that’s when the trouble starts. Sometimes they want to get out, and sell to the wrong person. Sometimes they want to get out but can’t find a buyer and don’t know what to do next.

Sir David Murray at Rangers was an example of the first category. Vladimir Romanov at Hearts is an example of the second.

Control at Hearts has changed hands three times in recent decades, and each time was an improvement – at least at first. Wallace Mercer injected new life into a moribund old institution at the start of the 1980s, Chris Robinson and Leslie Deans took over after Mercer had run out of steam, and then Robinson, with Deans sidelined, sold out to Romanov when the going got tough.

Mercer saved the club. Robinson and Deans reinvigorated it. Romanov kept it at Tynecastle.

But none of those three parties planned a succession. Mercer was probably fortunate to find a buyer when he did. Robinson’s “plan” – to play home games at Murrayfield – could have been the ruination of Hearts. And Romanov . . . . well, if he does have a plan, he has yet to tell us what it is.

True, when the recent share offer to fans was launched, his lieutenant, Hearts director Sergejus Fedotovas, suggested that one possibility was a gradual handover to fans. Ten per cent at a time, if this first tranche went well, then an extra little chunk and the fans would own a majority of the shares.

This enthusiasm for supporters’ involvement has certainly not been discernible at any previous stage of Romanov’s ownership. Indeed, at one point even the continuation of a separate shareholders’ association appeared anathema to him.

Although the shareholders’ association at Hearts has an insignificantly small percentage of the club’s stock, his preference, according to Fedotovas, was to have it changed into a “loyalty association”. In other words, a group which would cheer him on without even having a minimal right to question him through its small stake.

And the thing is, even if Hearts supporters buy out the full amount currently on offer, that could easily be rendered meaningless by a further share issue. All it takes is the approval of a club general meeting. And as long as Romanov’s company Ubig holds a big enough share, that approval is guaranteed.

In other words, Romanov’s new-found enthusiasm for democracy may be shortlived, or might not amount to much in any case. He still holds the power, Hearts are still in debt to Ubig to the tune of some £22 million, and that does not look like changing any time soon unless some other rich type turns up and whacks a great wad of cash down on the Tynecastle boardroom table.

So it is going to be hard, desperately hard, for Hearts fans to take control of their own club. But a start has been made, by the block buying of shares by supporters’ website Jambos Kickback and by the individual efforts of many others. And they will be spurred on by the knowledge that if and when control is gained, they can ensure that never again will the club be so badly run as it has been in recent years.

Born in Russia in 1947, Romanov grew up in the Soviet era. The younger generation who hold positions of responsibility under him have some acquaintance with Western business practice, but are allowed limited room for manoeuvre. As a result, Hearts have been run since 2005 as if Stalin had bought a book on company management, skimmed through it on the plane to Edinburgh, then started putting its ideas into action the minute he got to Gorgie.

This cackhanded application of modern methods was exposed most clearly in the summer, when the club introduced a “dynamic pricing” policy for season-ticket sales, including renewals. The only aspect of it which was truly dynamic was the way people jumped up and down enraged in the ticket office when they realised how much the price of their seats had increased while they were waiting in the queue.

The Romanov regime lost a lot of goodwill then, but similar, more costly inefficiencies have been going on throughout his tenure. In years one and two, for example, several agents were astounded to learn how easily they got inflated salaries for their players.

This is thought to be because Romanov had decreed what the overall budget would be – £10m per year is the figure most often quoted by former employees – and his underlings felt obliged to fulfil it. Even if that meant offering mediocre players a ludicrously lavish weekly wage.

Under supporters’ control, such folly would either not happen, or be swiftly snuffed out when it did. You employ a small, professional group of people to take charge of the club, and in the normal course of events they get on with it without interference. Just as, in the normal course of events, the manager picks the team without having it altered by fax from an office more than 1,000 miles away.

But like the manager, the chief executive and the other professionals are answerable to the owners. And when the supporters are the owners, that means the club is in the hands of the people who care about it most. Not someone who first has so much money that he does not know how to use it properly, and then appears to have so little that he cannot extricate the club from the sorry mess he has made of it.