A glance at the top of the Scottish Premier League (SPL) would suggest that Hearts (Heart of Midlothian) are having another strong season with a good chance of securing Europa League qualification at the end of the campaign. However, the performances of the players on the pitch have hidden increasing turbulence in the background with a series of delayed salary payments to staff. Whatever happens next is not entirely predictable.
Ever since Russian-born Latvian businessman Vladimir Romanov assumed control of the club in 2005, the affairs of Hearts have often attracted their fair share of publicity. Yet, on his takeover the Jambos were suffering serious financial difficulties, and Romanov promised to tackle the inherent debt. Relocating the debt to his own financial institutions Ukio Bankas and UBIG seemed a good move at the time.
Results on the pitch also improved. With George Burley having been appointed as first team manager under the Russian tycoon, Hearts won their first eight games of the new season. Burley’s shock dismissal thereafter was attributed to personal differences, but since then Romanian-born Csaba Laszlo has been the longest serving boss under Romanov at eighteen months.
Current manager, Portugal’s Paulo Sergio, has been in charge since August 2011, however he is experiencing a rather eventful season even by recent standards. Debts are reported to be upwards of £35M and Romanov has announced his intention to sell the club for approximately £50M. Although he owns Lithuanian outfit FBK Kaunas and Belarus club FC Partizan Minsk, and has loaned players to Hearts from the Lithuanian team, his positivity towards Scottish football has clearly waned.
Romanov’s fractious relationship with the SPL plunged to new depths in January when he was directed to pay all outstanding wages by 11th January and that month’s salaries by the 16th. The sale of Eggert Jonsson to Wolverhampton Wanderers helped to finance the first payments, but a delay of seven hours in meeting the second deadline dismayed the SPL, who subsequently threatened the club with sanctions.
Hearts were able to prove their innocence and accused the authorities of being dictatorial, while the SPL claim it was a blatant piece of brinkmanship by Romanov with his background in the banking industry. Whatever the arguments, the entire episode marked the culmination of several months of wrangling over unpaid wages.
This began by the deferral in payment of October salaries, followed by similar delays in November and December, prompting the players to seek advice from the SPL management via their union. One, Ryan Stevenson, refused to play from mid-December and eventually moved to Ipswich Town in January for an undisclosed fee.
Throughout this turmoil, manager Sergio has been unequivocal in his praise for the playing staff. Despite a dip in form during October, a recent defeat against Inverness ended a six-match unbeaten run during which the Jambos had occupied third place in the table. The players seem more content and claim to be focusing on winning league games, although the parlous state of the club’s finances generated much speculation over outgoing moves during the January transfer window.
What happens next remains to be seen, but the uncertainty shows no sign of ending. With the club up for sale, a report was commissioned to investigate the long term viability of Tynecastle as an SPL ground. The findings indicated that a new stadium would serve the best long term interests of the football club, although some supporters insist that the rebuilding of the main stand would complete the modernisation of the side’s home.
The logic of building a new stadium with the Jambos still heavily in debt raises question marks as to Romanov’s motives, but perhaps he is looking at every option to make Hearts an attractive prospect for a budding investor. Finding a suitable buyer could yet present a formidable challenge however.
It was reported that former chairman Lord Foulkes asked Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to find a solution. Salmond, a passionate Hearts supporter, was said to have contacted the ruling royal family of Qatar regarding a possible takeover. They declined the invitation by declaring their lack of interest in Scottish football, a decision which may highlight the current state of the country’s game.
While the English Premier League continues to attract the interest of overseas investors, the SPL lacks the real glamour and stature of its illustrious neighbour. Finding anybody prepared to meet the £50M price tag for the purchase of Hearts will not be easy for Romanov.
Until a new benefactor emerges, the Russian-born Latvian will have to consider whether his feud with the Scottish authorities is worth pursuing. It does not seem to be damaging the team’s fortunes, but their impressive efforts this term have been shepherded into the background by more disparaging headlines off the pitch.
More clashes between Hearts and the SPL hierarchy cannot be ruled out between now and the end of May. For the majority of Jambos supporters, it is now becoming an unwelcome distraction from the real need to ensure European qualification at the end of another challenging season.