There exists no such concept of the comfortable silence when it comes to football in Edinburgh. One week, noises out of Tynecastle note the length of time it has been since senior squad players last saw pounds deposited into their bank accounts, and the next week these same players are finally paid but rumours of a January firesale for them run rampant. In between, Heart of Midlothian fail in their endeavours with the local council to expand and renovate the existing stadium while manager Paulo Sergio escapes his disciplinary hearing in Hampden with only a warning but faces new charges after his conduct during his side’s loss to Kilmarnock 29 October, thus extending the club’s media blackout further. It seems Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov has something interesting to say every week, so with him there will never be anything approaching silence of any kind regardless of the media ban. Perhaps, though, a bit of deliberate reflection is in order to adequately assess where the club goes from here.
For Hearts, everything begins and ends with Romanov. While the beginning of his ownership went well by him saving Hearts from going homeless and later financing the squad that split the Old Firm in the final league table of the 2005/06 season, his expected rate of return on this investment in Scottish football has yet to be realised, and his recent actions (or inactions) has demonstrated his frustration. There have been repeated threats of action from HMRC for unpaid taxes, and players have been paid late more often than the sensationalism over the most recent episode would suggest. While these failures to pay taxes and wages could be interpreted as a potential cash flow issue, they might also simply be Romanov’s slightly petulant way of dealing with authorities he has no respect for and players whom he’s paid high wages to over the years which have not performed to his sometimes unrealistic expectations. It was interesting to observe that wages for club staff and players outside the senior squad had already been paid during the time senior players were considering filing a complaint with the Scottish Football Association for not receiving theirs.
As for the tax men, Vlad will likely always be late paying them while he remains the owner just to take the starch out of their collars.
Now, in light of this perspective on the late payment story coupled with the subsequent announcement that the club’s higher wage earners will be shopped during the January transfer window suggests a different impression of Romanov and what he has planned for Hearts. Rather than being a club with a debt crisis whose owner looks ominously close to dumping the whole affair for basketball, they are instead an organisation whose workforce is being refitted by a business owner whose patience with a perceived lack of progress has run dry. Surmising Romanov as a patient person might sound as odd as considering Iain Dowie a handsome gentleman, but to be fair he has stuck around Scotland much longer than many might have initially thought. With that in mind, if he has now truly fallen out of love with football he will not be abandoning the club immediately as perhaps feared but will instead re-size the playing squad so as not only to protect his interests but also place the club in the most attractive position for sale by reducing the wage budget a potential new owner or partner has to swallow upfront. Finding a buyer will likely take some time, so the club is being set up for a long haul transition that will require a bit of patience on the part of supporters to understand. The club has already undergone the process to deflate its wage budget before all the current sound and fury, reportedly whittling down annual employment costs from £10.5 million in 2009 to £9.1 million last year, producing the club’s first profit–albeit a small one–for the first time in eleven years. Simply put, what has already been set in motion regarding reducing the size and the cost of the playing squad will continue as before but possibly at a slightly more accelerated rate. Further, as Romanov essentially owes to himself from the over £30 million in loans extended to the club from his bank Ūkio Bankas, he will be wanting to see some return on the millions spent during his time in Edinburgh.
For those wondering if Romanov might ditch the patience and just right off the debt to be rid of the capital, the man is stubborn too, so this scenario is rather unlikely.
So, if Romanov is the beginning and the eventual end of this current era for Hearts, what of the middle, and the team that will be fielded every other weekend at Tynecastle? If plans go accordingly and the club can identify buyers for those players on higher wages either in January or this summer, more youth will be given the opportunity to be served. While this could certainly be considered a slippery slope whereby the club loses its status as being one of the more successful and best supported sides outwith the Old Firm, this comports roughly with what many Scottish football fans and Jambos have been asking for of late. With the SPL unable to compete with the English Premier League financially for already established world class quality, the clubs up north should shift their focus to bringing along their youth players more so than sitting them on the bench in favour of overpaid and spent talent from the past. Given the number of times this notion has been mentioned since the season began and how Scottish Premier League clubs consistently fail to recognise it at their own peril, what appears to be in the short to medium term future regarding the composition of Hearts squads falls in line with an acceptable recommendation. For however long Paulo Sergio remains the manager–for this is one position Romanov has little patience with if team form dips–he appears ready to play the youth and provide them a decent chance to succeed.
The second leg of the Europa League playoff with Tottenham Hotspur demonstrated this, with Sergio selecting a good number of young lads that played out a draw at White Hart Lane after more senior players were thumped 5-0 at Tynecastle. Admittedly, the draw achieved in North London was not against a true Spurs XI, but the squad Harry Redknapp put up against Sergio’s youngsters still had the quality to beat an SPL side with regularity. Were Sergio allowed the time to whip a revamped Hearts squad into shape rather than draft in another new manager to restart the blooding of other youth, some consistency could be reached in terms of form and the squad could surprise. Or, should Sergio’s habit of over-rotation of his XI return to Edinburgh as it did in Portugal with similarly poor results, Romanov could turn to someone like Jose Couceiro to replace Sergio–as was done at Sporting CP–to mold a more youthful Hearts club into a reasonable winner. After all, Romanov once had the former Portgual U-21 coach as his manager at Kaunas a few years ago. As an added bonus, during his time with Kaunas, Couceiro was able to beat Rangers in the Champions League. Whomever it might be, the key to the club finding the proper balance between playing a younger, cheaper, and smaller squad with good results on the pitch will come down to, believe or not, patience.
As some time has passed since the seemingly apocalyptic week Heart of Midlothian experienced before, the outlook appears slightly more promising for the club. Their benefactor will not likely call time on the end of his love affair with Scottish football as his tenure has demonstrated some modicum of deliberation despite his words not suggesting otherwise. For the squad, reducing wages and numbers while pushing their youth players into more regular appearances for the senior side might well be a welcome change for supporters desirous of seeing whether Scotland’s got more talent than a television game show. Hearts might fall a bit deeper into the pack trailing the Old Firm in the league, but even this could be considered a positive, as without European qualification they won’t have to be in such a rush to leave a non-UEFA compliant Tynecastle until they are ready. While many grumble at breaks in the league schedule owing to international matches, having to wait an extra weekend for their next game might have done Hearts a great deal of good this time around to experience a smidgen of silence, even if it might be the uncomfortable kind.
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