Thursday, November 15, 2012

Hearts still beating

I'm currently in the Netherlands.

In a town called Dordrecht.

The town where Craig Levein sourced Mark de Vries, that one time hammer of Hibs, for Hearts.

It's just over a decade since de Vries arrived at Tynecastle.

Hearts have crammed a lot of living into those ten years.

At stages over the past fortnight it has looked like the club might have been no more when I returned from my Dutch perambulations.

That immediate threat has now passed, the taxman has agreed terms over outstanding payments.

But Hearts remain at a crossroads.

In the short term funding has to be found to see them through the season, to meet wage bills, pay future taxes and cover overheads.

And in the longer term answers need to be found about the future direction of the club.

They've found themselves in a similar position before. They were in a similar spot in the aftermath of the de Vries era, when things were grim and Vladimir Romanov stepped in with funding, the promise of salvation and a barrel load of dreams.

He's taken them on quite a trip - I need no reminder of the most recent good times - but the eventual destination remains unclear.

There has been little to suggest over the crisis of the past couple of weeks that Romanov is set to start funding Hearts again.

Yet it is his banking group that controls the club's debt. Hearts remain his club, their assets his assets.

He is part of the all powerful new footballing aristocracy. Men of various means who revel in the 'cult of the owner' and have a dictatorial grip over their estates.

Not paid your basketball team? Make a joke about sending them food parcels. Let them eat cake indeed.

Preening and egotistical, these modern day Marie Antoinettes lap up the adulation but they never forget that they have their clubs in a vice-like grip.

Football seems paralysed in the face of such interlocutors. We've seen over the past couple of weeks, as we saw in the summer and we've seen elsewhere before, how governments and footballing authorities are quick to react when things go wrong.

Yet it is always reactive. There seems no way - or no will - to make proactive changes in the way clubs are run.

Either clubs are businesses - and thus at the mercy of fly-by-nights, asset strippers and rich men who get bored - or they really are special institutions with a unique place in our communities.

In which case a way of protecting that status should be found.

Because, as events at Tynecastle have shown, it is a universal truth of such situations that it is the fans who will be shafted.

It will be the fans who most keenly feel the emotional threat of oblivion, the fans who are asked to dig ever deeper to find the cash needed for survival.

And the Hearts fans have responded, social media has been harnessed to launch fundraising initiatives, spread the key messages about what is needed and why and incubate a spirit of fraternalism in getting the job done.

They will need to keep that effort going in the face of an uncertain future.

Already this week we've seen attempts made to buy the club from Romanov, attempts build a sustainable Hearts with fan involvement at its heart.

So far those moves have been rebuffed. Romanov holds the cards and isn't for dealing yet. Salvation remains within his gift. But so to do the most immediate routes into administration or liquidation.

Thus Hearts might stand on the brink of an uncertain but sustainable future or more of the threats and panic of the last couple of weeks.

That the state of Romanov's pride or the fluctuations of the Lithuanian banking system might decide that future should be a warning about how football clubs are governed.

I've been asked a lot how I feel about this situation over the last few days.

I have no sympathy for Romanov or any others who have steered the club to this stage. If - and this remains to be seen - the Hearts situation does indeed begin to mirror that of Rangers then Hearts must be dealt with in the same way.

I have a lot of sympathy for clubs who have made swingeing cuts, worked hard to keep up with their tax obligations and make payments on time while the quality they provide on the pitch and the service they offer off the pitch has suffered. Now they find yet another club in their midst has become an extreme financial basket case.

And I have sympathy for the fans. It's not pleasant to think your club might disappear from the footballing map.

Not all Hibs fans share that view. Some have been revelling in the prospect of Heart' demise.

Football means different things to different people. I think rivalry enhances the game. You need a rival to have a rivalry.

I've never thought of Edinburgh as a city divided by football nor football as a reason to hate this club or that club, this fan or that fan. Dislike passionately over the course of 90 minutes maybe. But never hate.

Maybe I'm a man out of time, longing for days when footballing rivalries didn't mean disengaging your brain and leaving your manners outside by the coal bunker.

But there we are. As much as dark times and never ending gloating can upset one's equilibrium, I'm not sure the demise of any club is a cause for celebration.

What the fans have shown over the last few days is that Hearts won't die. If even darker times lie ahead we can be confident that some form of the club will remain in Scottish football.

Hearts aren't finished.

We can only hope that the era of men like Vladimir Romanov soon will be.