HEARTS have denied that Motherwell manager Mark McGhee had been interviewed for the vacant post at Tynecastle, but sources at the Edinburgh club acknowledge that McGhee remains the preferred candidate to fill a vacancy which has existed since the start of the year.
If Hearts play by the book, which they insist they will do, they will have to ask Motherwell for permission to speak to McGhee, who has a year left on his current contract at Fir Park. They have not yet done so, and therefore described as premature a report which claimed McGhee had been formally interviewed for the job by the Hearts owner, Vladimir Romanov .
That argument could wear thin before long. The situation is expected to change soon, provided the former Wolves and Millwall manager is still interested in the Tynecastle job. Motherwell completed their league programme last night with a match at Hibernian, and there is now no pressing business to deter McGhee from contemplating alternative employment.
He and Craig Levein, the Dundee United manager, have been the two potential candidates to interest Hearts most since January, when they began their search for an experienced manager. Jim Jefferies of Kilmarnock, who is a former Hearts player and manager, was the other Scotland-based manager to be considered in internal discussions, but Hearts felt his record did not compare quite as favourably with the other two.
Levein, another former Hearts player who also went on to take charge of the club, made it clear as the season progressed that he was firmly committed to Dundee United. He has struck up an excellent relationship with the club chairman Eddie Thompson, and would not necessarily regard a return to Hearts as a step up from his present position. McGhee, on the other hand, could expect a significant increase in his salary if he agreed to move east. He would also have a bigger transfer budget, albeit a more modest one than has been available to other Hearts managers since Romanov bought the club.
That would be the plus side of joining Hearts. The great fear for McGhee or anyone else as they thought of taking the Tynecastle job, however, would concern their credibility and what might happen to it.
Hearts disbanded their coaching triumvirate of sport director Anatoly Korobochka, Stephen Frail and Angel Cervenkov at the start of the year. Cervenkov left the club, Korobochka took on a less hands-on role, and Frail was named caretaker manager.
In a statement issued at the time, however, it was made clear that Frail was expected to revert to being an assistant coach under the new man, who would also have Korobochka above him or at least present in an advisory role.
"The manager, who will have full responsibility for team selection, will be an experienced football manager and will preferably have experience of management in British football," the Hearts statement read. "The new manager will work with sport director Anatoly Korobochka and assistant head coach Stephen Frail."
Hearts initially made some improvements under Frail, albeit from a very low starting point. But they failed to make it into the top six for the first time since the SPL split began, and they finished the season dismally with three defeats.
McGhee's success on limited resources at Motherwell offers a sharp contrast. His relatively small squad had to cope with the traumatic death of their team-mate Phil O'Donnell in December, and maintained their form remarkably well to claim third place. Away from the Old Firm, he has been the most successful manager in the top flight, and if he chooses to turn down Hearts he will surely receive other offers soon.
The key question for McGhee is whether he really will have "full responsibility for team selection". That statement was made with the full backing of Romanov, but he is notoriously hands-on and has not always allowed Frail to choose the team himself.