Nicol: An era is ending at Heart of Midlothian Football Club, as after eight years of ups, downs, Cup victories and enough on-a-whim changes of coach to create a localised but extremely powerful managerial waltzer in the Tynecastle car-park, majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov has decided that he no longer wishes to bankroll the club. Since Romanov took control of the Hearts in 2004 he – through his holding company UBIG – has funnelled cash into high wages in an effort to chase the glory that has traditionally eluded the non-Old Firm clubs in Scotland.
However, his plan to restructure Hearts into a self-sufficient entity, living sensibly within its means seems to involve the fiscal planning equivalent of giving up cold turkey, and the UBIG cash stream has been removed while expenditure is still much higher than the income that even a successful team could expect to gather in the tightly-belted landscape of the modern SPL. There have been several instances of wages being paid late to staff, and numerous winding-up orders presented by HMRC as Hearts continually wait until the last minute to clear their bills.
The latest such order was presented just two weeks ago, tied to an eye-watering demand for £450,000 in unpaid PAYE and National Insurance contributions. Rather than play down the seriousness of the order, as Hearts had done on previous occasions, the board made an appeal to fans, making clear that this could well be the end of club if they were unable to pay the bill - and they pleaded with the supporters to help raise funds by contributing to a recently-launched share offer and making every effort to sell out all forthcoming home matches.
Financial worry and doom-mongering have never been far from the Hearts narrative since Romanov began throwing money around at levels that anyone could see were unsustainable for a club of Hearts’ size in a league like the SPL – but this admission and entreaty from the club’s management was a harsh and incredibly unwelcome dose of reality. As a Portsmouth fan, you’ve had to live through a similar situation Lukey – so did you have a moment where you thought ‘Hang on, this really might not be okay?’
Luke: Yeah, I think I did. The record will show that I was deeply concerned about Peter Storrie’s handling of the club from quite an early stage, around when it was discovered that Sacha Gaydamak was using his ownership of the club to secure loans against it rather than simply putting his own money in. There were also question marks around whether the money he did actually have was his or his father’s (who was and is subject to arrest warrants for a number of different things), and aside from having to do any digging, there’s the small matter of why big-name players were choosing us over other clubs. The answer to that is for the astronomical wages that were being thrown at them. And when you’ve got a stadium that seats less than 21,000, it’s obviously not sustainable.
The Hearts debacle really hit home for me again the ludicrous disregard that football has for its fans. Time and again they are treated with disdain through punitive price hikes for tickets, crazy scheduling of kick-off times, extortionate prices for food and drink within stadiums and astronomical prices for replica shirts that are replaced almost every season. Then, no sooner has the conductor signalled the end of the song for this dance with the Devil, it’s all ‘YOUR club is going to go out of business and YOU will have no football club to support if YOU don’t put your hand in your pocket to save YOUR club.’
The language used is always so cynically emotive, designed to cause the most guilt possible until hardworking fans who are struggling financially anyway for the most part end up either footing the bill or spearheading fundraising efforts to pay the bills that a irresponsible owner, who in some cases shouldn’t have ever been allowed to own the club by the authorities in the first place, couldn’t be bothered or couldn’t afford to pay.
To cap it all off you then have fans of rival clubs either laughing or saying that it ‘serves the club’s fans right’ for not doing something about it which is the worst sort of self-flagellation because they don’t realise that it could so easily be them but for a quirk of geography or affiliation. These sort of things affect every football fan sooner or later and debase the value of the game as a whole.
One thing I would say to you is that if it’s anything like Pompey, it’ll get worse before it gets better. It becomes the worst kind of tiring; my instinctive thought when it comes to Pompey these days is about the ownership or some crisis off the pitch and not the game itself, which is actually immensely depressing.
Nicol: The one thing that the Hearts situation has over Pompey’s is that we seem to be skipping the bizarre sequence of ever-more-obscure and blatantly criminal owners, and moving straight to the point where fan ownership looks to be the only long-term future for the club. You can pretty safely accuse Vladimir Romanov of being delusional, incompetent, morally questionable and dangerously egomaniacal - but at least his dealings with club haven’t strayed into outright illegality (*crosses fingers, hopes he hasn’t jinxed any future lurid headlines*).
The weird thing about the way football is just now is that, despite the urgent and – as you rightly say – cynically emotive language used by Hearts in the last few weeks, is that I never really believed that the club was in any immediate danger. I remember a Motherwell-supporting friend of mine talking about the first time that his club went into administration, and him going to Fir Park utterly convinced that he was attending their last ever game. The sheer number of clubs that have since flirted with oblivion (and outright wooed, married and set up a comfortable retirement with oblivion, hiya Rangers!) and still survived – and even thrived – have completely numbed me to the idea that football clubs can ever disappear.
This is obviously a dangerously blasé attitude to take, but it ties in with what you were saying about the ludicrousness of rival fans saying that it ‘serves the club’s fans right’ for not doing something about it. While football clubs are owned by individuals who are determined to throw money they don’t have at the pursuit of success, how can supporters make any demands for sense? How could I, individually or collectively with my fellow fans, stop Romanov handing Mauricio Pinilla a massive contract? And if I had that power, would I have been able to be clear-headed enough to do it in the moment?
To put it another way, you say that it was clear at the time that Pompey’s model was unsustainable - but in all honesty, would you have put a stop to it when you had the sheer visceral joy of Kanu and Sully Muntari and the Cup and home games against AC Milan and David Nugent? How caught up were you?
Luke: That’s such a difficult question to answer, because you’re talking about the most successful season that Portsmouth have had for over 50 years. The majority of fans that were inside Wembley stadium when Sol Campbell lifted the FA Cup for Portsmouth weren’t born when the club last won anything of note. To then realise afterwards (or perhaps more accurately being forced to stop denying) that what was happening was essentially a sustained period of financial doping is heartbreaking for everyone.
So, did I support the team and revel in the glory of the Premier League years and the FA Cup win? Yes I did. Was I aware that all was not as it seemed, yes I was. I talked about it a bit on the show and was mistrusting of the regime pretty much from the outset. It’s a curious balance to strike though because you want to support your team but at the same time be clear that you don’t agree with the management structure and behaviour. It’s not an easy thing to do.
Ultimately, your question boils down to: An FA Cup win or a club to support, and I think you know, as a fellow football fan, what the answer is to that.
Pompey are/were in a bit more of a bind than the previous high-profile financial casualties of the sport in this country as well, by the way, because Leeds United and Rangers (to take two examples) are both hugely supported institutions and Portsmouth really are not. Not in the grand scheme of things. We’ve seen smaller clubs go to the wall and go out of existence purely because they’ve not had the fanbase to sustain them when it all went wrong. It was touch and go for a while as to which side of the fence Portsmouth were going to fall on.
Now we have the real prospect (with some hurdles still to overcome, admittedly) of being the largest fan-owned club in the country and that fills me with huge excitement.
As for Hearts, they’re a well-supported club in a capital city so realistically you’d have to be confident of them continuing in some form whatever happens. And, to the outsider, I realise it can appear that football clubs can just sidestep paying their tax/bills and if the club folds another club can be started and everything is ok again. But what they don’t realise is that it’s always the fans starting up another club because they have no team to support, and the fans weren’t to blame in the first place, so what do people expect them to do?
Nicol: And that, ultimately, is why Hearts’ current situation makes me sad, but not despair. Obviously I would prefer to support a Heart of Midlothian who play at Tynecastle in the top flight of Scottish football, but if it has to a Junior side playing on a public park, I’ll be right behind whoever’s wearing that maroon shirt. It may be hopelessly naïve and idealistic to say that – but supporting Hearts stopped being about watching sporting excellence quite some time ago, and is now almost 100% about those feelings of community, communal purpose, shared history and nostalgia that no amount of financial mismanagement can destroy.
It is interesting – given that context – that my first thought on potential fan ownership was to be wary that a supporters’ consortium would be able to finance Hearts sufficiently to keep them in the strata of football to which we are accustomed. But then, logically, if every club were fan-owned, there would be no such thing as a club operating beyond its natural level. Barcelona can spend millions because they have millions of fans; a fan-owned Hearts would be able to spend thousands by the transitive property.
Would that be the end of football though, denying the Davids the chance to splash some speculative cash on the stilts required to square up to the Goliaths? Perhaps, but given the stresses that our and other clubs have been put under trying to keep up the payments on the borrowed silverware, surely it has to be better than the alternative?
Luke: I’d argue that just about anything is better than the alternative. You can’t speculate to the extent that some clubs do and not expect there to be consequences. The only way that a David should slay a Goliath is through good infrastructure, good coaching and good players. That’s the way I see it, anyway.
Luke Moore is a founding member of The Football Ramble, and can be heard on the podcast every week. He also has contributed to ESPN, BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio London, Sky News and ITV.
Nicol Hay watches a lot of sport and then writes about it. It's a compulsion, and he needs help desperately. His blogging can be found here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.