H EARTS have become so immune to speculation about their financial health that recent missives from Lithuania have barely caused a ripple.
The full details of Ukio Bankas' stumble into administration, and what it might mean for those at Tynecastle further down the line, will become clearer in the next few days but, in the short term at least, it won't change a great deal. That Hearts are in the midst of a period of austerity and downsizing has been accepted quite readily for quite some time now; the collapse of owner Vladimir Romanov's bank only likely to accelerate that course of action rather than greatly alter its direction.
John McGlynn was appointed as manager last summer on the back of six years of service at Raith Rovers, but it was not a coincidence that his background had been in youth coaching. It did not take long for last season's Scottish Cup-winning side to start to disperse, the club unable to pay them wages at a level to which they had become accustomed. Ryan McGowan was sold in January, and others will move on in the summer. An ankle injury will keep captain Marius Zaliukas on the sidelines until the end of the season and there has been an acknowledgment the Lithuanian will probably not play for the club again with his contract coming to an end. With Zaliukas thought to be taking a five-figure weekly wage, there has been little of the usual "hopeful of getting him tied down" bluster from McGlynn, a man fully aware of which way the wind is blowing.
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Danny Grainger, another long-term injury absentee, has already been told he will be free to find a new club come the end of the season, while there could be plenty more joining him at the exit. Andy Webster, Andy Driver, Darren Barr, Dylan McGowan, Scott Robinson and Arvydas Novikovas are among a cluster of players poised to become free agents, all likely to be offered vastly reduced deals if any at all. McGlynn, a headstrong, savvy operator, will be expected to continue to put out a side capable of competing at the top end of Scottish football but with a budget that is only going to get smaller and smaller.
Hearts' season has been effectively reduced to one game, the Scottish Communities League Cup final against St Mirren on March 17. They are 10th in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League but in no danger of being relegated, barring some unforeseen domino effect from the Lithuanian banking crisis somehow dunting them into administration and with it a 10-point deduction. The tightness of the division from second to 11th means there is little reason why Hearts can not still finish as runners-up but another cup success, with a squad vastly more inexperienced than the one that triumphed at Hampden last May, would be regarded as a far more significant achievement.
McGlynn's ability to get the best of youngsters has proved to be an increasingly useful skill. Players such as Fraser Mullen, Billy King, Jamie Walker, Jason Holt, Callum Tapping, Kevin McHattie, Dale Carrick and Callum Paterson – all still teenagers – have become familiar faces around the first team, some flitting in and out, others becoming mainstays. When the Scottish Premier League slapped an embargo on the club for the repeated late payment of wages – decreeing that they could sign only players under the age of 21 – it barely seemed like a punishment at all. Hearts went out and recruited a Scotland cap in Danny Wilson and then Michael Ngoo, an England under-20 striker, further adding to the team's youthful veneer.
With Zaliukas injured and Ryan Stevenson suspended, Hearts could well field one of their youngest-ever sides against Kilmarnock tomorrow afternoon. That commitment, enforced or otherwise, to youth was further highlighted by the recent decision to offer new deals to McHattie, Carrick and Jack Hamilton, a Scotland under-19 goalkeeper honing his trade on loan at Forfar Athletic.
Hearts were quick to play down the significance of Ukio's collapse, releasing a statement earlier in the week that distanced the club and UBIG, their parent company, from the stricken bank. McGlynn adopted a similar tone yesterday. "Just the same as the statement," he said, clearly not wanting to get into the intricacies of the Lithuanian banking system. "Just exactly that. We were told before the statement came out what the statement would say. And that is what I believe."
Romanov has left Hearts largely to their own devices for some time and last week announced he was relinquishing ownership of Zalgiris Kaunas, his debt-laden basketball team, believing the city council had not offered them sufficient financial support. There has been a reluctance to date to completely cut ties with Hearts, although fans eager for a fresh start will be hopeful that, with more pressing matters troubling him back home, Romanov may decide to offload the football club as well.
"Following the loss of the main sponsor, the situation remains unclear. Players' wages were late and money was transferred to our account yesterday. It was the money that got stuck. But there's no panic, although people want to spark it. The situation around wages being late is not very good but the thing I like most is that players are [united] and there's no panic in the team." The words were delivered by Vitoldas Masalkis, sports director of Zaligris Kaunas. They would have elicited a few empathetic nods in Gorgie, too.