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Nov 14, 2012

Hearts and minds

This week, North of the Border examines the mismanagement of Hearts amid their desperate pleas for funds to avert liquidation.

• Derek Rae: Hearts need not be broken

HEARTS AND MINDS

The escalation and apparent depth of the financial problems at Hearts continues to reveal itself in a suitably fractured and chaotic fashion. The lack of information and guidance from the owners of the club leaves a knowledge gap filled by fear and speculation. As Groucho Marx has it, truth goes out the door when rumour comes innuendo.

The supporters of this club have been placed in a painful bind. They were asked by the club to raise cash that, they now admit, will be used to pay Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs to prevent that body shutting the club down over unpaid taxes. The fans' response has been staggering over a short period of time, but they must also know that they are bailing out Vladimir Romanov, the owner who has mismanaged their club, building up a huge debt to his own companies and, according to the HMRC, failed to pay taxes.

It appears unlikely that even this effort, combined with a fighting fund set up by former players, will hit the target of £2 million the club claims it requires by the end of the season. Every statement by the club contains numerous bum notes, suggesting that the scales are balanced between the two Scottish Cups won during the Romanov era and the threat now faced by the club. It does not take any observer long to compile a list of players acquired by Romanov's football advisors who cost, in wages and transfer fees, over £2 million and whose contribution at Tynecastle is difficult to recall.

The outcome of all of this is clouded in the fog that surrounds Romanov. His own financial position is a mystery. He also has a history of brinksmanship in transfer negotiations as well as in previous issues with HMRC and other creditors. The remains of this were seen this week when Rangers offered to pay £500,000 of their £800,000 debt to Hearts for the purchase of Lee Wallace and David Templeton now, on the condition that the remainder is written off. That would have given Hearts more than enough to pay the immediate tax bill. It was a cheap move from Rangers and Romanov knocked it back, but it is hard to buy his 'life-or-death' pitch when he makes a move like that.

As always with Romanov, there remain more questions than answers, but after an era when he ran year-on-year a wages-to-turnover ratio unequalled in Scotland, his club is now in a perilous position.

STRUCTURALLY UNSOUND

The shape of the league structure in Scotland was up for grabs during the summer, when, as part of the SPL's horse-trading aimed at parachuting a reformed Rangers into either of the top two tiers, a revision of the current system was offered as an incentive to lower league clubs.

Rangers were relaunched in the Third Division and, despite the acceptance during negotiations that change would have been for the "good of the game" (a phrase that was used to sugar-coat all manner of ills during that unsavoury saga), such plans were swiftly forgotten by the SPL. Not so in the lower leagues.

This week, the 30 clubs of the Scottish Football League (SFL), comprising the three divisions below the SPL, will discuss proposed changes put forward by their chief executive. The details will also be sent to the SFA and the SPL. These plans involve a unified governing body (the end of the independent SPL) and a three-division structure of 16-10-18, to begin in the 2015-16 season. That adds up to two more than the 42 pro clubs on the go today and would include reserve teams from Rangers and Celtic playing in the lower leagues with no possibility of promotion to the top division.

It is tempting to get into the mechanics of that set-up, but there have been so many variants on league structure put forward in recent times, with support split across so many different models, that such details are a distraction. What is more significant is the renewed and organised drive for change and the fact that it comes from David Longmuir, the chief executive of the SFL. Longmuir was the only governor to come out of the Rangers saga with his reputation intact and he carries much goodwill among his member clubs and the supporters, whose voice is being heard more clearly than ever before.

However, the SPL still needs an 11-1 majority for votes on structural change. This wacky rule, implemented as a de facto Old Firm veto when the league was formed, was also offered as part-exchange by the SPL when it was trying to keep a hold of both sides of Glasgow's big two. Now there is no Old Firm in the SPL, but the 11-1 vote remains and reports indicate there is nowhere near that level of support within the top division for this kind of change.

Perhaps, though, there does not need to be. If Longmuir can get a consensus within his 30-club constituency for an agreed model, he will be in a position of strength. If he can get the SPL around the table and if the supporters - the majority of whom, when asked, favour change - can be heard as they were during the summer, a debate will begin that may succeed in righting some of the wrongs in the structure of the league system.

HOT SHOTS

Three strikers of note checked in with goals at the weekend.

Leigh Griffiths, of Hibernian, took his record to 12 in 12 with a finish, in a 2-1 win against Dundee United, that illustrated his confidence and ability - a powerful volley at the back post after a move of the kind that has made believers of that club's supporters this season. The forward, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, was called up to the Scotland squad this week and should get a run at Luxembourg.

The other red-hot striker in the league is Niall McGinn of Aberdeen. He has scored seven in seven SPL games after a goal in the Dons' 4-1 win at St Mirren and the former Celtic player has proven an astute use of the extended budget made available to manager Craig Brown. Aberdeen are in third position with a deeper squad than most of the clubs around them and are in a good spot to make the European places.

Finally, Paul Heffernan scored twice for Kilmarnock as they beat Ross County 3-0. It was his first start in eight months and the return of their most reliable goalscorer makes Killie a better-looking proposition for what lies ahead. Both goals were first-time finishes and the return of Heffernan's simple striking could give one of the slickest teams in the SPL a winning edge.

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