Over-reliant on youth while ban in place
13 January ~ Hearts have been in administration since June and are unlikely to come out of it soon. They've automatically been subject to a signing embargo for the same amount of time. Not just a transfer embargo; they're not even allowed to sign free agents prepared to play for nothing, or register any existing non-playing staff – such as 33-year-old club coach Robbie Neilson, a former Scotland international – as players. As a consequence, Scotland's third biggest club are over-reliant on a small group of young players.
Only two outfield players in their squad are over the age of 22 and they haven't had enough fit players to fill their substitutes' bench for several games. They have appealed unsuccessfully to the SFA to have the embargo overturned and are now appealing to the SPFL, who will consider their position today.
Rules are rules, but for once the punishment seems so damaging and unnecessary that the rule should be adapted. Like many clubs going into administration, Hearts had already made drastic (although long overdue) squad cutbacks. Clubs in administration need to be able to operate with flexibility to help ensure their survival and raise money for creditors.
To make matters worse, Hearts' administration process is horribly complicated and drawn-out. A provisional CVA was agreed with creditors in November, but it is conditional on Foundation of Hearts – the organisation trying to save the club – acquiring shares held by their former parent company, the Lithuanian banking group UBIG, which is also in administration. The longer the administration drags on, the more effect injuries, illness and suspensions will have on Hearts' ability to field a team.
The club believe the development of their teenage players is likely to be hampered by having to play too many consecutive games. And the administrators are reluctant to sell players because they can't replace them, even with free signings. Swansea want to buy teenage midfielder Adam King, but Hearts can't realistically sell him before the end of the season.
Hearts are unlikely to gain an unfair advantage from signing a few free players; they started the season with a 15-point penalty for going into administration, and are currently on minus two points, 20 behind their nearest relegation rivals. They haven't won any of their last ten games. Even Terry Butcher, the manager of Hearts' bitter rivals Hibs, thinks the embargo should be overturned.
There was a glimpse of light for the club on Friday, when SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster indicated that – even if the embargo is not lifted – they can make individual appeals to register players on a case-by-case basis, citing exceptional circumstances. Surely any sensible appeal should succeed; the circumstances Hearts and their young players are currently operating in are clearly exceptional, even by the standards of Scottish football nowadays. Mark Poole