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Time running out for Hearts

This week, the threat of an exodus at Hearts coupled with frustration against Celtic, and a look at the only contenders for third place.

New year, no players?

The non-payment of senior players at Hearts appears to be approaching a crucial juncture. Last weekend, an anonymous member of the first-team squad gave an interview with the Scotland on Sunday newspaper in which the prospect of players walking away from their contracts in January was raised. FIFA regulations empower players to take such action if they have not been paid their salaries for 90 days, and January 14 will be the date that triggers that option for the players at Tynecastle.

Past seasons have seen delayed payments there, but never on this scale. The October salaries were delayed until early November, when an intervention by Paulo Sergio, the manager, facilitated a resolution and quelled the threat of an official complaint to the Scottish Premier League.

Senior players have not been paid wages due on November 16 and the club has warned that no payment is likely to be forthcoming until the New Year at the earliest.

In light of this unfolding drama, the announcement in the autumn by the Hearts owner Vladimir Romanov that he had lost interest in his Scottish asset and wished to sell the club that he has steered into a £30 million debt (owed to the Lithuanian bank he also controls) raises doubts over the funding available to Russian.

His time at Hearts, whom he has funded on a level beyond every club outwith the Old Firm with some success, has included several threats of legal action against the club by creditors, who were almost always paid at the 11th hour. The condition of Romanov's finances may be measured by his ability to engage in that kind of financial brinkmanship to avoid losing his club's most valuable players before they can be sold in January. No club will make an offer on January 1 for Andrew Driver or David Templeton if they believe they could pick them up as free agents two weeks later.

The SPL and SFA have been toothless so far, the former body claiming it requires a formal complaint by players to investigate a club's practice, the latter unwilling to interfere in cases it may have to rule on at an appeal hearing.

The unpaid players are due their December wage on Friday and if they do not receive payment then, it is likely that some, at least, will lodge an official complaint with the league, which will bring yet more pressure to bear on a club fast approaching a crisis.

Paying the penalty

Hearts' form since they first delayed payment, in October, has been horrible. They have lost five games in seven and Sergio has stated his concern over the motivational problems that arise from the situation.

However, his team were extremely close to denying Celtic a victory in Glasgow last weekend. Leading 1-0, the home side conceded a penalty when the Hearts striker John Sutton was held in the box. Eggert Jonsson, Hearts' Iceland international, struck a good-looking penalty, but Fraser Forster, the Celtic goalkeeper, followed its flight and batted it away with his trailing arm for a fine and valuable save.

For both teams, in different ways, it could prove a pivotal moment. Celtic continue a resurgence in their pursuit of a Rangers team that lacks its early-season authority, while the next Hearts team that visits Celtic Park may look very different to the one that traipsed off after Forster's save denied them a win bonus that would, by way of consolation in the end, have been purely theoretical.

The Daley show

Motherwell continue to generate a baffling lack of heat for the kind of season Hearts used to spent millions of pounds in transfer fees and salaries to engineer. They are the only contenders for third place after their weekend victory over their nearest rivals St Johnstone, who then lost at home at Aberdeen on Tuesday night.

While St Johnstone are suffering without their catalytic front two of Cillian Sheridan and Fran Sandaza, the responsibility at Motherwell has an even spread. After a bit-part start to his time at Fir Park, Omar Daley is the latest player to step up and he was involved in all three unanswered goals at St Johnstone. Daley is a 30-year-old pick-up from the English lower leagues, the kind of signing every other team in the SPL live on, yet in this side, this season, he and Motherwell appear a cut above the rest.

This was Motherwell's fifth consecutive away win in the SPL, a staggering record. They have a game in hand over the Old Firm above them and St Johnstone below, after their home game against struggling Hibernian was abandoned. They are seven behind Celtic, six in front of the team they defeated last weekend.

There are likely to be offers made for some of their players in January, including their versatile and elusive forward Jamie Murphy and their excellent goalkeeper, Darren Randolph, but by the end of that month they may be so far in front of a pack that does not include a team capable of sustaining a charge that they can retain their position, if not all of their players, for the course of this season.

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