Hearts skip a payment; signing post
In this week's North of the Border, Hearts could be in trouble again and the transfer merry-go-round is in full flight.
HEARTS SKIP A PAYMENT
The close season began ominously for Hearts, who ended 2012-13 dodging bullets from Lithuania. In the Baltics, the two companies to which they are indebted for a combined £25 million are in various stages of implosion and at one point it looked as though Hearts would be ruled insolvent and relegated as a consequence. Instead they stumbled into the summer and a PAYE tax bill for £100,000.
Hearts have history with the tax man, who almost closed the door on Tynecastle stadium mid-season, when a heroic fundraising effort from their supporters kept the wolf from the door.
Each new crisis increases the sense that a collapse is coming, yet Hearts appear to be carrying on regardless. They signed Danny Wilson, the former Liverpool, Rangers and Scotland centre-back, last week. This week they were linked with some of the top-line free agents in the SPL, including the league's all-time leading scorer, Kris Boyd. When news of the latest unpaid bill emerged, the club said they were "in dialogue" with HMRC and hoped to make payment in "the very near future".
With gate money gone for the summer, season ticket income may now be essential to the ongoing sustainability of Hearts. Just before this story broke, the club issued a letter to supporters who had not renewed their season ticket. It now seems that those supporters who raised over £1 million in November will be asked to pick up the cheque once more. The letter included the club's aims to resolve issues around "debt and ownership" and to improve the first-team squad, in a week when two midfielders, Mehdi Taouil and Arvydas Novikovas, left the club.
Hearts are once more on a precipice, with the tax man behind them and supporters gathering below, with a home-made safety net.
Last week's North of the Border looked at the talent drain effect on the SPL of several of its better players joining Rangers, in the Second Division, as free agents. This week, another one left the league, with more likely to follow. The destination of the evacuees illuminates the position of the SPL in terms of economics and – in perception at least – talent.
Chris Humphrey was a starter for Motherwell all season and this was by far the best of his four years in Scotland. The 25-year-old right winger was one of the quickest players in the SPL, but the line on him in previous seasons was that he didn't have much else. This season he provided much of the heavy ammunition for Michael Higdon and also went inside his full-back to shoot more often.
Rangers made an offer for Humphrey but the player chose to join Preston in League One. No SPL club competed with either option.
Motherwell have already lost Darren Randolph, second only to Celtic's Fraser Forster among SPL goalkeepers last season, to Birmingham City, and Nicky Law, their best midfielder, to Rangers. Michael Higdon, the top goalscorer in the SPL, James McFadden, who improved in almost every game in his short-term contract, and the set-piece specialist Tom Hateley are all out of contract.
At Dundee United, a bid of around £750,000 was accepted from Derby County for Johnny Russell, their striker. His strike partner, Jon Daly, left for Rangers last week. An attempted repatriation of David Goodwillie, the striker United sold to Blackburn Rovers for north of £2 million last year and who is available on loan, is audacious but by no means a done deal. United also lost their out-of-contract left-back, Barry Douglas. The 23-year-old exercised a refreshing and rare world view by joining Lech Poznan on a two-year contract. Few Scottish players consider overseas alternatives, despite declining economic prospects in the SPL.
At Hibernian, Leigh Griffiths' return looks less likely now that Kenny Jackett, the new manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, said he wanted to pick up the 12-month option that club have on the striker, who led Hibs almost single-handedly last season.
On the whole, the significant incoming signings are between Scottish clubs. Willo Flood moved from United to Aberdeen, to be joined by Barry Robson, the former Scotland midfielder who will play for his hometown club in the winter years of his career. Owain Tudur-Jones, a towering and under-rated midfielder at Inverness Caledonian Thistle last season, was picked up by Hibs; at this early stage in the close season, there is little sign of a net gain in the quality of players in the top division.
The oddest transfer story this week came from the First Division, where Raith Rovers and Livingston began a fight to the death over Callum Elliot, a former Scotland Under-21 striker who finished the season by helping Alloa Athletic win promotion from the Second Division.
Elliot started his career with Hearts in the SPL, where he clocked a lot of game time and won a big contract, when big contracts were quite the thing at Tynecastle. After a series of loans, he played in Lithuania with Zalgiris Vilnius, before a short-term stint at Alloa, during which Livingston, one of his previous loan stops, announced they had agreed a contract with Elliot for the coming season. Paul Hartley, his manager at Alloa, confirmed this. So that was that.
Until Raith Rovers this week claimed they had signed Elliot, prompting an angry promise of an inquisition from Livingston. At 26. Elliot is already well-travelled, but even a journeyman footballer such as he cannot possibly play for two teams at once, especially if the clubs in question are scheduled to meet each other four times next season in league play alone.