Even now, with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs having pushed Hearts to the brink of liquidation, the fate of the club still lies in Vladimir Romanov's hands.
Whichever direction the club takes in the coming days, they will find the Russian-born businessman in the midst of the consequences. He is the owner, but also the major creditor, and so the authorities, with whatever legal powers they can wield, remain in a stand-off with Romanov, with Hearts caught in the middle.
This will have influenced HMRC's decision last week to petition the court to issue a winding-up order. The taxman is seeking to liquidate Hearts rather than put the business into administration, but there have been at least five occasions in recent years when Hearts have been late in paying tax bills. Many of them have been higher than the £450,000 currently owed, yet HMRC will have taken a strategic decision.
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What is the future for Hearts? There isn't one unless the club restores the balance between its costs and its revenue. The wage bill remains too high – three times already this season some staff have not been paid on time – and HMRC may have grown tired of the cycle of confrontations. They are thought to have considered trying to force Hearts into administration last season, but by seeking liquidation, they will either force Romanov's hand, bring other potential owners to the fore, or ensure that the initiative to raise money from the supporters generates enough cash. Either way, as was the case with Rangers, HMRC are ensuring they receive as much of the money that is owed to them as possible.
"The administration of Rangers cost around £5 million and didn't seem to add much value to creditors," said Neil Patey, a partner with accountants Ernst & Young. "A liquidation should be cheaper. A liquidator also has greater investigative and recovery powers than an administrator and so HMRC may want to get on with that now and get greater control, rather than have a costly, less controlled process first."
Yet Romanov can intervene. If he paid the outstanding tax bill himself, he could then take control of the club's fate by voluntarily putting it into administration. As the major creditor, with around 75% of the club's debt, and holder of the floating charge of the club's assets, he is first in line to benefit from payments to creditors, but is also in a position to allow or deny a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) to bring Hearts back out of administration.
Romanov could even end up still owning the club, if he makes an offer to the administrators that represents better value to all of the creditors than splitting up the business and selling the assets individually. He would then have a debt-free club, albeit one fighting to survive relegation after a points deduction. Romanov is currently owed in the region of £22m, but it is unlikely he would ever realistically recoup that figure since Tynecastle – the major property asset – was last valued at around £13m and wouldn't generate much more while the property market is depressed.
Hearts director Sergejus Fedotovas said of Romanov: "He still continues to support and provide. He provides guarantees for us and without him we wouldn't even have been able to start the season. In previous years, we spent a lot of money on players and this money came from Mr Romanov.
"The strategy was to invest in the squad and make it the strongest in Scotland. We were really close to that. We are in a position where around £20m of debt has been taken away from the balance sheet of the club by Mr Romanov. What he said is, 'I've not been able to achieve what I was aiming at, so I will not be investing more'."
If Romanov cannot or will not intervene, Hearts' only hope lies in the generosity and commitment of the club's fans. Any money raised now is essentially being donated to keep the club alive. If Romanov was to then put Hearts into administration, he would receive the vast majority of any further cash raised for creditors. If he keeps the club going, while reducing costs, Hearts fans are entitled to wonder if stricter financial and corporate governance rules will be put in place to prevent this from happening again.
In truth, though, they will act simply to stop the club from disappearing. Yet the problems Romanov inherited continue to restrict Hearts, since the stadium needs upgrading, but there is no financially viable way to fund it and selling the ground would mean having to build another stadium elsewhere.
"The only way forward is to progress with our plans for the share issue," Fedotovas said. "This club has the muscle to resolve this situation. We have seen a good response from the fans and I am still hopeful we can have dialogue with people at HMRC who will reassess the situation. By putting the club against the wall, people at HMRC either lack understanding or this is on purpose. If they don't liquidate this club they'll get £450,000 and then more in monthly payments for many years to come. So where is the logic?"
Unlike Rangers' situation, where HMRC were one of the two major creditors and so had a controlling vote on the outcome of administration, the taxman has to take his chances with proceedings. Romanov is prepared to talk to potential buyers, but Hearts are in a dangerous state of limbo.