Heart problem

wsc300 Mark Poole explains that even though their club is owned by a millionaire, one group of SPL players are not having their wages paid regularly

Last month the Scottish Sun reported that Hearts midfielder Ian Black had taken on casual work as a painter and decorator to pay for his children’s Christmas presents. It was perhaps the most evocative example so far of the current turmoil at Scotland’s third biggest club. For three consecutive months, the players’ wages have not been paid on time. Their October wages weren’t paid until weeks after they were due, and their November pay arrived in their accounts a month late. At the time of writing they are still waiting for their December pay.

Director Sergejus Fedotovas admits he doesn’t know when the players’ latest wages will be processed. He told the Edinburgh Evening News: “I can’t tell you if it will take a few days or a bit longer but we are really confident we will be past these difficulties in a short time.”

Several senior players are out of contract in 2012, and fans must be fearing the January transfer window. They already know that the team will be affected by the financial situation. Ryan Stevenson – who has scored four times for the club so far this season – has told manager Paulo Sergio that he no longer wants to be considered for selection. And midfielder Eggert Jonsson – a former fans’ player of the year – has agreed to join Wolves in January.

It will be particularly interesting to see how Stevenson’s situation develops. If he can leave the club by proving they are in breach of contract, other players may be tempted to follow his example in search of financial security. The club have admitted that they need to reduce their wage bill, but they will not have planned to have done it in such an uncontrolled way. The club have also recently faced winding-up orders for late tax payments, which were withdrawn when they subsequently settled their outstanding bills.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. When majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov arrived at Hearts in 2005, he promised to break the stranglehold Celtic and Rangers have on the SPL. After a promising start, manager George Burley left the club amid rumours of Romanov interfering in team affairs. The rest of Romanov’s reign has been defined by a combination of controversy, paranoia, managerial sackings and overspending.

Romanov has continued to invest millions in Hearts since he bought them. Their wage bill has been far higher than any other club in Scotland, other than Celtic and Rangers, and significantly more than 100 per cent of turnover, for a number of years. But apart from one Scottish Cup in 2006, his investment has not provided any significant success on the pitch. Romanov is a man of means. He is also the majority shareholder of the Lithuanian bank UKIO Bankas. But he is now indicating that he would like to sell the club, and maybe go into theatre. He says: “I am a poor man because I invested everything in sport.”

Romanov values Hearts at £50 million. He hasn’t indicated whether that takes account of the £36m net debt the club recorded at the end of the 2009-10 season – much of which is owed to Romanov/UKIO. Former Rangers owner Sir David Murray has denied rumours linking him with the Edinburgh club. He knows better than anyone how long it can take to find a buyer for a Scottish club. Television income is low, average attendances are falling and the SPL is notoriously uncompetitive. It is hard to envisage why anyone would invest such a huge sum of money in a loss-making club with very little chance of winning its domestic league, particularly from a man who says the club is hampered by a “mafia” and that Scottish football is “dying”.

So the players are entitled to wonder if their situation will improve. They have been professional and diplomatic throughout. They eventually lodged a formal complaint with the SPL when their December wages were not paid. The SPL will decide what steps to take in early January. The chief executive of the players’ union, Fraser Wishart, says he hopes that deadline will encourage the club to pay their players. If not, it will be interesting to see if the SPL decides to divert club revenue directly to the players. Even if they do, it may not provide long-term benefit, given the disparity between television income and Hearts’ total wage bill. The players’ best bet may be to seek alternative employment.

From WSC 300 February 2012