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Jun 20, 2013

Foot of the fiscal cliff

In this week's North of the Border, the game in Scotland appears to be at the foot of a fiscal cliff.

THE UBIG ISSUE

Hearts moved into administration this week and any attempts to see them as a tribute act to Rangers, who spent last summer embroiled in a similarly bloody collapse, misses important and unique elements in another complex and cautionary tale.

The latest episode involved a dispute over who would get to appoint the administrator. The Hearts board requested one firm, but UBIG, a Lithuanian investment group who own 50% of the club's shares but are on the way to their own insolvency event, got to pick their man.

UBIG also have a marker for £10 million. The Kaunas-based bank Ukio Bankas are due £15 million, but are also in administration. Their debt is secured against Tynecastle stadium. It is worth recalling that until recent events, both Ukio Bankas and UBIG were owned and operated by Vladimir Romanov, who also controlled Hearts. The debt the two Lithuanian companies held was previously far greater, but was converted into equity. The fog around these ownership issues has been cited in the withdrawal of one of six groups reportedly interested in acquiring the Edinburgh club.

The collapse of an organisation whose annual wages-to-turnover ratio routinely exceeded 100% under Romanov has been predicted for a long time, but the consequences for Hearts are now stark.

In the days before administration, all of their players were placed on the transfer list. The 15-point penalty they will begin the season with for entering administration will likely be combined with a suffocating depletion of talent.

The likelihood of a buyer emerging willing to meet the demands of such a mountainous debt and to protect or replenish a squad to the point where it can overcome a 15-point handicap seem microscopic at this stage.

Therefore a skeletal Hearts squad limping through the season toward an inevitable relegation is one scenario that now seems plausible. A sale of the club and its assets would provide the administrators of the two Lithuanian companies - providing UBIG's inability to trade is confirmed - with some kind of result for their creditors.

However, the option most feared by supporters of the club is the sale of Tynecastle to a non-footballing buyer and not only the liquidation of the club in its current form, but the demolition of the stadium in which they have played for 127 years.

UNITED FRONT

The administrators who will now operate Hearts' affairs, BDO, are already in charge at Dunfermline Athletic, relegated to the third tier at the end of last season on the back of a mid-season points deduction.

There are two bids on the table for the Fife club, with a supporters group, Pars United, up against a group whose anonymity has been protected at their own request.

One of those bids will be backed by the administrator when a company voluntary arrangement is put to creditors on July 12. These terms are now depressingly familiar to followers of Scottish football.

At one point debts of over £8 million seemed sure to sink Dunfermline, but their hopes of salvation now appear down to the former directors who constitute the vast majority of the club's creditors agreeing to the pence-in-the-pound offer for the club and its stadium, East End Park.

BALDE MOVE

Celtic made the biggest deal of the summer so far with the acquisition of Amido Balde from Vitoria de Guimaraes for £1.8 million.

Balde has all the hallmarks of a modern Celtic signing: the circa-£2 million price tag, the age range (22) and the profile - the striker arrives after his breakthrough season in Portugal, with the promise of further development at Celtic.

However, the deepening of the forward roster has become an issue at Celtic. Lassad Nouioui is being released midway through a two-year contract; Miku, on loan last season from Getafe, was rarely deployed and will not be back in Glasgow, while Mo Bangura remains the biggest blemish on Celtic's excellent recruitment record under Neil Lennon: he was signed for £2.2 million and is in the second loan of a four-year contract which may end without him scoring a single goal for Celtic.

The champions may be ensuring they are ready to compensate for the loss of Gary Hooper, the striker they must sell this summer or risk losing for nothing as his contract expires a year from now. With no challenger on the horizon domestically, they can probably take the money and go on with what they have.

BATTLE OF BRITTAIN

In the latest instalment of the Richie Brittain saga, the Ross County manager Derek Adams has admitted that his captain will not be allowed to play football in the new season as a result of his signing a new contract with the Highland club.

Previously, Brittain signed a pre-contract agreement with St Johnstone, who offered a two-year deal while Ross County were still unsure of the outcome of their debut season in the SPL.

That ended up going very well for Adams and his team of diehards and the club could afford to make their skipper an offer he couldn't refuse.

Now both clubs have Brittain registered for next season, meaning neither can play him. It still looks a game of chicken, with St Johnstone likely holding out for some money for a player whose dirty socks they have never had to wash.

TRAVEL CLUB

Cillian Sheridan looks like he's made Kilmarnock a little money in a bad week. As the chairman, Michael Johnston, fends off half-hearted takeover bids while looking for a new manager, a bid for the striker made by APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus has been accepted.

Sheridan is that rare breed, an SPL footballer willing to see what his skill set means in the vast unchartered lands which some believe exist outwith the English leagues.

The former Celtic graduate is 24 and has already played for CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria, although that jaunt didn't work out so well and resulted in a return to the SPL on loan for St Johnstone.

Last year he showed he is still above par for the domestic league at the top of an intelligent Kilmarnock team; next season he may now get a sniff of Champions League action with APOEL, albeit briefly.

Similar opportunities must exist for most of the better players in the guts of the SPL, but are rarely taken and perhaps observers of that competition should be grateful for the lack of adventure amongst the athletes therein.

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