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Hearts start to beat once more now club is saved

THE spring in their step around the training ground was unmissable.

Gary Locke considers the day that 14 members of staff lost their jobs to be the darkest moment of his tenure but the manager is now able to look ahead with optimism. Picture: SNS
Gary Locke considers the day that 14 members of staff lost their jobs to be the darkest moment of his tenure but the manager is now able to look ahead with optimism. Picture: SNS

Hearts had the feel of a club which had just pulled off a great triumph. "You've got something positive to write at last," manager Gary Locke shouted at the media as he walked past, beaming from ear to ear. Soon he was teasing one of the cleaners, joking that her work was suddenly far better now that the club was saved.

There are still some odds and ends to tidy up around this beleaguered club, in fact, but when Ukio Bankas' creditors agreed to transfer their 29% shareholding in the club - adding it to the 50% UBIG shareholding which had been secured already - the threat of liquidation receded and Hearts began to emerge blinking into the sunlight. There is work to be done before they will formally come out of administration and it may take several weeks. Clearly a major milestone has been reached in the Hearts saga, though. It is forgivable to start contemplating their future.

There will be a Hearts next season and beyond. Now the focus on prospective owner Ann Budge will segue slowly from whether she can save the club to how healthy and competitive it will be with her in charge. Budge and a board of directors will run the show, with working capital contributed from The Foundation of Hearts fans group to top up the regular season-ticket, sponsorship, SPFL and broadcasting income.

Budge and The Foundation of Hearts must rely on a sustained, ongoing commitment from supporters. When she first communicated with them directly, in February, a message was distributed to 55,000 people registered on the club database. The club has around 10,500 season-ticket holders and 8000 have signed up to a financial commitment to The Foundation of Hearts. Budge will provide the up-front £2.5m to pay off the Lithuanians and secure the club, and then her business expertise in running it for between three to five years. The Foundation will inject £1m in working capital and a further £1.4m per season for two years.

If the money keeps coming in from the supporters - and there is no serious drop-off in payments from those who mistakenly think their involvement is no longer required - Hearts will have a secondary source of revenue beyond that enjoyed by most other SPFL clubs.

How successful might that model be for Hearts, who will formally be a Championship club by the time Budge assumes control? "It can be really successful," said Locke. "Look at our fanbase, look at the support we take with us all over the country. We are a massive institution in Edinburgh with great history.

"There's no doubt with the fanbase we have got it can be a very good model for success. I'd imagine the new owner would have good ideas for the club because she's a very shrewd businesswoman who knows her stuff. She's got the best interests of Hearts at heart and the only way this club is going now is forward. There's a big rebuilding job to be done, of course there is, but there's a fantastic future awaiting us. Can we get back to winning cups, finishing second in the Premiership? Without a doubt.

"We have certainly learned a harsh lesson that you have to live within your means. Every football club in the world now realises you can't go spending money you've not got. I certainly feel that will never happen here again.

"There's a bright future ahead of us. We are going to be in the Championship and it is going to be a really tough league with a lot of good teams in it. So there are no guarantees we will come straight back up. But if we work as hard as we have done this year, and improve the way we have done, we'll give ourselves a really good chance.

"Barring only one or two games the desire and the commitment of the players to go out and do well for the football club has been there for everyone to see. It's really pleasing that the priority of all the players is to stay here. That speaks volumes for them and it speaks volumes for their feelings for the football club. Over the last few years there have been some players who have played here who didn't want to be here. With this bunch of players every single one of them wants to play for Hearts."

Locke is still only 38. Sometimes there can be a weariness about him which belies his years, but the signs of fatigue are understandable. Yesterday he was asked to recall his lowest moment and struggled to be specific, at first referring to all the months since they went into administration as a single "really difficult" entity.

The answer then crystallised on to the bleak events of June 20 last year when 14 members of Hearts' staff were made redundant. "As the manager you realised just how bad everything was and you saw people losing their jobs. I don't think I'll have another day like that, another day lower than that. It's been a long 10 months."

Had the architect of all this distress, Vladimir Romanov, ever had the decency to apologise to anyone at Tynecastle? "I don't know if anyone has heard from anyone. But at the end of the day he came in and we had success. People will never forget the cup wins we had. But it is important now we look to the future."

It will still be a while before Hearts return to being just another football club. Ostensibly yesterday's media conference was to discuss tomorrow's match against Ross County. Only at the very end, when the tape recorders had gone off and everyone was preparing to leave, did someone remember to mention it.

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