Hearts and minds

They wanted to stop the club going under; so they try heading down under. Neil Forsyth reports on how the Tynecastle board, not content with just selling their ground, were thwarted

Fans of Heart of Midlothian have grown used to controversy this season, with an attempt by the board to sell their Tynecastle home and become match-day tenants at Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rug­by. It is a suggestion prompted by the club’s ludicrous levels of debt, reported to have reached around £18 million, which would be perhaps halved by the sale of the ground.

Unsurprisingly, the plan has been opposed by a majority of Hearts followers through demonstrations, ven­omous letters-page contributions and a new local businessman a week being heralded as a possible saviour. And so it was into this atmosphere of distrust and traditionalist ire that news emerged in early March of a proposal that made the Murrayfield switch appear tame in comparison. Hearts were in talks to play a home Scottish Premier League fixture next season in… Australia.

The club had agreed in principle to a plan from Tribal Sports Management, a Melbourne-based agency, to play a one-off league fixture game in the city, a curtain-raising game in the first week of August. Celtic, a club with unique drawing power in any country with a tradition of Scottish and Irish immigration, were hesitantly mooted as possible opposition.

Reaction from most quarters was a fairly comprehensive confusion, tinged with hilarity. Skippy the Kangaroo made a rare foray into the sports pages and Celtic manager Martin O’Neill poured scorn on the plan – “it would take us about four weeks to get there” was his dismissive response, with a nice touch of colonial history from the cerebral Ulsterman.

Behind the chortles and the enthusiastic rubbishing of the proposal by learned pundits lay the far more interesting truth that the game could easily go ahead. Although on initial inspection it would appear a logistical impossibility, attracting judgment from a wealth of regulating bodies, it would take only the SPL to give the nod to the project through an 8-4 vote by member clubs. TSM showed opportunism to go with their rather unique vision, said to be a global first. The 12 SPL clubs have a combined debt of £190m and three of their number are in administration. With £20,000 on offer to each club for voting for the proposal, and considerably more for the two participating clubs, TSM appeared to be pushing at an open door.

There was, of course, a considerable hurdle remaining. Celtic’s board followed O’Neill’s line and politely excused themselves. However, their Old Firm counterparts were not so quick to turn down the chance to make history. Rangers have a debt of £60m.

But at a meeting of the SPL on the March 30, on a day of mass debate over league admission, ground sharing and even undersoil heating, the Australia proposal was quietly introduced for discussion before being surprisingly defeated.

Lou Sticca, managing director of TSM, was “very surprised”. He added: “The financial situation in Scot­tish football is well known and I have to say I thought this proposal would be met with open arms.”

To the outsider, it may well be a puzzle. Was it an example of deal-making and petty infighting among SPL chairmen despite the game’s financial meltdown; of fiddling while Rome burned? Possibly, or maybe it was a principled stand, a feeling that even in troubled times, Scottish football should be played in Scotland. It could well have been that Hearts, who are trying so hard to break with tradition in another area, were defeated by that very factor.

From WSC 207 May 2004. What was happening this month