Hearts head towards insolvency
In this week's North of the Border, Hearts' SPL existence hangs by a thread and Leigh Griffiths prepares to face Celtic.
A series of unfortunate insolvency events
What a week for Hearts! After the collapse of the bank to whom they owe £15m, the investment group that hold the marker for the remaining £10m of their debt (and own 79% of the club), UBIG, asked to be declared insolvent. The SPL held a meeting to work out if this meant Hearts were insolvent and decided that this was not the case "on the basis of information currently available". In these seven words rests the meat of the matter.
From the start we have known far less than we should about the spider's web of ownership and debt that surrounds Hearts and their stadium, Tynecastle. UBIG and Ukio Bankas both appear to be, or to have been, under the control of Vladimir Romanov, the Russian-born financier who has operated Hearts out of Kaunas, Lithuania since 2004. Hearts shifted its growing debt to these intertwined institutions as Romanov oversaw a colossal overspend on players while hiring and firing a succession of managers.
It has been said this week that the current level of Hearts' debt - £25m - is around the same as it was when Romanov acquired the club, at which time they were found to be technically insolvent in a review of Scottish football by Price Waterhouse Cooper. However, this fails to take into account two debt-for-equity schemes, one in 2008 and another in 2010, which wrote off a total of £22m due to UBIG in exchange for an increased shareholding. That debt was effectively swallowed by a company which is now insolvent, with debts reported at £380m. The thread is being pulled now, and it is hard to imagine that Hearts and Tynecastle will not be tangled up in the process that lies ahead.
The SPL shot-callers surrounded themselves with translators and lawyers to assess what is happening in Lithuania. That story is still moving, but "on the basis of information currently available", what the SPL rules term "an insolvency event" appears unavoidable. Hearts are a break-even business, and that is the only rock they have to cling to after spending more than their turnover on wages. Now the people funding that party can't pay the bills.
The SPL rules state that insolvency will lead to a points deduction (apparently to be implemented next season) once more information is available. There may yet be greater dangers ahead for Hearts.
Lots of love for Leigh Griffiths this week. Having already won the Young Player of the Year award from his fellow pros, the striker was named Player of the Year by the football writers and the SPL before being called up to play for Scotland by Gordon Strachan, after he pretty much dared him not to in his acceptance speech.
Griffiths is about to complete a second consecutive season-long loan at Hibernian from Wolverhampton Wanderers, who have seen nothing of Griffiths, bar one League Cup appearance, since they bought him from Dundee in January 2011. Now, after a season that has brought all those awards and 28 goals, they are interested in the 12-month option they have on Griffiths.
The striker is a Hibs supporter, so the Edinburgh club have unique leverage in their pursuit of a player whose attention they would otherwise struggle to attract. Griffiths this week said that he would rather remain at Easter Road than join Wolves' bid to regain a place in the Championship next season.
Griffiths has one more game, at least, as a Hibs player. The Scottish Cup is cursed for the Edinburgh club; they have not won the competition since 1902. They take on the champions, Celtic, in the final on Saturday at Hampden. Hibs were hammered there in last season's final, 5-1 by Hearts - a result they will not be allowed to forget. In the semi-final this year, Griffiths scored another brilliant goal to complete an escape against Falkirk, who had led 3-0 at half-time. It is not a pedigree that will startle Celtic and their manager, Neil Lennon.
Lennon is a contender for some of the jobs which will arise in the English Premier League as a result of the domino rally of retirements, sackings and recruitment. Some of his players are unlikely to start next season at Celtic. Lennon's Celtic have sometimes disappointed at the national stadium, but there is sufficient motivation this time to exploit the quality gap which undoubtedly exists between the two teams. Provided they can stop Griffiths.