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.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Scottish football: Reconstruction rivals

"The battle lines were drawn months ago and the main players have been digging the trenches.

"But listen closely and you will hear the first volleys being fired as Scottish football edges closer, yet again, to civil war."

So spake the BBC's Chris McLaughlin as the latest contributions emerged in the eternal "reconstruction of Scottish football" debate.

Scottish Football Blog Hampden
The Scottish Football League will announce its plans first: a top league of 16, a 12 team second division and 18 teams in the bottom tier. Celtic and Rangers will be invited to enter "colt" teams. And the SPL will be disbanded, the "big" clubs returning to the SFL fold.

"Haud yer wheesht" say the SPL. They've their own plans and they don't include being disbanded. Rather: a top flight of 16, an SPL2 of 12 teams and a third flight of 12 teams.

Forget our romantic notions of a pyramid structure, of a constructive dialogue involving all stakeholders - including fans.

Where are we after our strange summer, the McLeish Report before that and the hints that the SFA were building up to bang heads together to get things moving forward?

We're nowhere. It seems hot air doesn't fuel the engines of change.

On one side the SPL, as defensive of its territory as ever, on the other a newly emboldened SFL.

And never the twain shall meet.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals - The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is a brilliant study of how Lincoln weaved different points of view into his presidency, to shape the America he wanted to emerge from its most tumultuous period.

From Barack Obama down many have adopted the book as a leadership guide, towering narrative history as self help manual.

Lincoln strengthened his grip on the White House and the country by drawing opponents of different hues into his inner circle.

Now I've no idea of reading habits inside Hampden and it is a churlish habit of football - this blog included - to hurl military descriptions at events on and off the field.

But for the same to happen at Hampden we must rely on the leadership of Campbell Ogilvie and Stewart Regan.

We must rely on those with different views to air them openly, without agendas, and be prepared to sacrifice their own ambition to build a better future for Scottish football.

What we're likely to get is the SFA abdicating responsibility for as long as possible as an increasingly bitter argument between the SPL and the SFA results in either the status quo or a bad fudge, our promised utopia replaced by the worst of both worlds.

A leadership vacuum filled by selfish bickering, the fans ignored, the hope of lasting, positive change ever more forlorn.

It wouldn't take Lincoln and his team of rivals to sort out Scottish football.

Unfortunately Screaming Lord Sutch would be an improvement on the current mob masquerading as "guardians of the game."

Scottish football is not doomed. Too many people care too much.

But nor does constructive change look likely any time soon. And the longer the spectacle remains bald men fighting over a comb, the harder the recovery will be.

Save the Leith One?

A strange Tuesday for Hibs. With their city rivals toiling under the threat of financial calamity, it was Hibs who ended the day with a dismissed employee and something of a PR storm.

At half time in Sunday's game against Dundee United the tannoy at Easter Road blasted out a few lines of George Harrison's Taxman.

A dig at Hearts, a gentle, chuckle inducing diversion during the tedium of half time.

A short blast of a short Beatles track that was picked up in a few reports on Monday morning, was described by one Hearts supporter's representative as "crass" - which it was - and the world continued to turn.

End of story?

Not quite.

It later emerged that the man responsible for playing the track, Hibs' tannoy announcer Willie Docherty, had been relieved of his duties at the club.

And so something of a social media storm developed. A 'Bring Back Willie Docherty' Facebook page has over 1100 likes at the time of writing, a #JusticeForWillieDocherty hashtag has sprung up on Twitter and forums - on both sides of the city divide - have seen fans post their support for the "Leith One."

Eventually Hibs released a statement:
The Club stressed that speculation that the action had been taken as a song played may have offended supporters of another club is not correct. 
Rather the action has been taken because the individual chose to wilfully disregard specific instructions given in the pre-match briefing which itself was consistent with guidance given during the week in the run-up to the match at Easter Road Stadium on Sunday, which was broadcast live on television.

The stadium announcer is not an employee of the Club, but is contracted to provide the service. In doing so, he operates as part of the Club's official channels of communications - which also includes the Club website and match day programme. 
Under SPL and SFA rules, the Club is directly responsible for what the Stadium Announcer does, says and plays. For that reason, the Club has specific guidelines in place and before each match detailed briefings take place. 
These reflect the values and behaviours the Club and its Supporters believe Hibernian FC should stand for. The conduct of other clubs is a matter for them. 
Before our recent home match against Dundee United discussions took place and specific instructions were given. The individual concerned has admitted that he deliberately breached the terms of the instructions the Club had given. The Club was left with no option but to take the course of action it did.
So there we are.

There are rules in place and they were broken. Specific instructions were given for this game - I'm unsure why the game being broadcast on TV is relevant - and they were ignored.

Why are rules in place if not to govern the fun?

Maybe playing the song - or a snippet of the song - was a needless dig at Hearts, at a situation Hibs have no interest in getting involved in.

But surely it was an inoffensive enough aberration. Certainly not one that necessitated the club setting itself so apart from what seems to be the prevailing public opinion, to make such a magnificent job of turning a molehill into a mountain.

In their statement Hibs said: "This is not an issue about having or not having a sense of humour."

If you have to point that out then you're probably doing a poor job of showing people that you've actually got a sense of humour.

Hibs went top of the league on Sunday and their star striker was called into the Scotland squad. It's taken them a gargantuan mishandling of a daft situation to get people talking about a song and a DJ instead.

Willie Docherty might have shot himself in the foot on Sunday. He's far from the only person guilty of that at Easter Road.


A lot of the arguments around Wille Docherty's treatment have centred on Hibs becoming the latest organisation to launch an attack on football "banter."

I'm not quite sure what that means.

Does embracing "banter" mean Tim Lovejoy and Paul Merson should front Sportscene?

And "banter" can be used to cover a lot of ills.

If Hibs wanted to make a stand about something that happened on Sunday then they might have chosen to speak out about the "refugee" chants continually and tiresomely aimed at Rudi Skacel.

Harmless "banter" in the eyes of some.

But harmless "banter" that was aimed at Skacel even when Shefki Kuqi was on the pitch for Hibs.

Kuqi was a Kosovar Albanian immigrant to Finland, as his family escaped the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. They were refugees.

Go figure.

I find Skacel as hard to warm to as any Hibs fan. But he's not a refugee. Which makes the song both nonsensical and potentially more offensive to a Hibs player than its target.

A "banter" double whammy.

If Hibs really wanted to launch a war on "banter" on the back of Sunday afternoon they missed the target.