THE battle for Hearts and minds goes on.
It is a drama with an ever-growing cast list and an ending that remains unwritten. Vladimir Romanov remains the protagonist of the piece despite rarely taking centre stage these days. The Lithuania-based businessman is the majority shareholder at Tynecastle but, after almost eight years, is said to have tired of the project and wants out. There is no timescale on any departure, however, and it will likely be done on his terms. This time last year there was an announcement that Romanov was keen to sell up and move on but interested parties found someone who did not come across as desperate to do a deal.
Prospective buyers will be hoping it is easier to do business this time around with Sergejus Fedotovas, Romanov's understudy, now leading negotiations. Funds from Kaunas to prop up a loss-making regime dribbled to a stop earlier in the year meaning Hearts have been left to fend for themselves. There is a £2m funding gap that any new owner would need to plug right away – and presumably not by withholding VAT and PAYE as the current custodians chose to do – before removing the highest earners from a bloated wage bill in a move towards being self-sustaining.
The assumption now is that Romanov, and his Ukio Bankas Investment Group, will need to write off the £22m debt that hangs over the club before any party would even consider entering into serious negotiations to take over the shareholding. The incredible take-up by supporters of the club share issue will cover the most pressing tax liability of £450,000 – due on December 3 – while a separate bill of £1.7m remains in dispute. Prospective new owners may insist that the current board take responsibility for that should a tribunal not find in their favour.
As things stand, there are two parties who have declared their interest in succeeding Romanov. One bid would have Hearts owned and run by their fans, possibly along the lines of the membership co-operative popular at many clubs on the continent. The Foundation of Hearts group, established by a number of Edinburgh businessmen several years ago, hopes to unite the disparate fans' groups by providing a vehicle through which supporters can invest. They have garnered plenty of publicity during recent fundraising drives and would seem best placed to form an initial board should any takeover prove successful.
For now, however, talks on their behalf are being conducted by Supporters Direct Scotland, whose representative, Paul Goodwin, is slated to meet Fedotovas and David Southern, Hearts' managing director, tomorrow to present a variety of different ownership models. Hearts seem genuinely enthused by the prospect of Romanov handing over the club to the supporters although only if the terms are right. A number of wealthy locals have been approached to invest and by doing so lessen the financial burden on the fans but so far none has made public any desire to part with the kind of sums that would make a real difference.
The alternative bid on the table has been made by a consortium of Italians, led by Angelo Massone, the former Livingston owner. Unlike the supporters, this group has the financial wherewithal to offer a sizeable sum up front, although their initial bid of £4.5m was rejected yesterday on the grounds, among other things, that it "undervalued" the worth of the club. Massone wants to work in conjunction with the Hearts supporters on a joint proposal, insisting he will eventually hand over the club to the fans for nothing, but the Foundation have made clear they have no interest in doing so.
While it is good news for the fans that Romanov has rejected the Massone-led bid, they may be somewhat disheartened – no pun intended – by the fact that they will, in all probability, have to come up with at least £5m just to get the ball rolling. It would seem there are many more chapters of this story still to unfold.