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Settling on a way to punish Hearts for wage delays is no easy decision

THE Scottish Premier League board will convene at Hampden this afternoon and try to decide just what to do about Hearts.

Vladimir Romanov is no longer a regular face in the Tynecastle crowd. Picture: SNS
Vladimir Romanov is no longer a regular face in the Tynecastle crowd. Picture: SNS

It is a prickly problem with no obvious solution.

Six players and John McGlynn had their wages paid late last week, the second month in succession there had been a delay. It is an issue that dates back to last season, when on four separate occasions players and staff went to the bank to check if their salary had been paid only to discover there had been another hold-up.

The average man in the street rarely has sympathy for professional footballers and their money worries but it is surely a basic human right to expect to be paid on time. Like everyone else, players have mortgages and other financial commitments to meet each month. There has always been a feeling that Vladimir Romanov, the Hearts owner, is thumbing his nose at Scottish football, that this is all a game of brinkmanship to see just how far he can push the authorities and get away with it.

He has had his thunder stolen somewhat this year by Charles Green, the Rangers chief executive, who has a similar penchant for making sweeping and often eccentric public statements, However, Romanov may find himself unable to resist coming out of hiding in Lithuania should the SPL board decide enough is enough and impose sizeable sanctions on Hearts for their latest indiscretion.

There were signs towards the end of last season that the league were tiring of Hearts' continual excuses for their cashflow problems. The introduction of new regulations that stated clubs would need to "pay their players and HMRC on time and be subjection to sanctions if they do not" was the first real shot across the bows. When Hearts were again late paying wages last month, the result was the imposition of a transfer embargo that meant they could no longer sign free agents. Some would argue the SPL were in fact doing Hearts a favour.

Money worries did not stop them recruiting Craig Beattie on a short-term contract last February despite interest from other clubs, and it was a similar story with the returning Ryan Stevenson at the end of the transfer window in August.

The embargo, in place indefinitely, at least puts to bed the ongoing rumours that Rudi Skacel would be re-signing at Tynecastle, a move that would have seen at least one Premier League club's chairman blood boil over with frustration.

Despite the payment of sums owed to the club by the League, the estimated £1m received from winning the Scottish Cup, and the revenue raised by the sale of David Templeton to Rangers and the Europa League ties with Liverpool, there seems no end in sight to Hearts' fiduciary problems.

McGlynn said as much last week, revealing that he suspected there would continue to be delays in wages being paid for the foreseeable future.

"You don't have to be the brain of Britain, do you?" the manager said. "They've not got enough money in the bank to pay you. From a football side of things we'll be fine. The other side of it needs to be addressed. It's for the football club to sort that out."

How they do that is anyone's guess. Judging by the infrequency of his communiques and visits to Scotland, Romanov has long since lost interest in bankrolling his project in Edinburgh, but, conversely, doesn't seem particularly keen to sell up. Parties seriously interested in buying the club at the end of last year grew frustrated and then walked away when their requests for basic information were repeatedly ignored.

For now, then, Hearts will need to go on as before, with more of the bigger earners likely to be moved on in January or next summer to try to drive down the wage bill. Paying players late each month may be part of their financial strategy or just poor administration, but it seems it is something the SPL are no longer willing to tolerate.

It is hard to know just what sanctions to apply in these circumstances. Extending the embargo is an option, albeit not a particularly effective one, with the transfer window closed until January, while a deduction of points would harm McGlynn and his players, the ones already suffering, more than Romanov and his cohorts. A fine for a club already in financial difficulty would also make little sense.

Perhaps the best thing might be for SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster to fly over to Lithuania to meet Romanov and discuss face to face his plans for the club and how he sees it returning to an even keel. Rangers' demise means Hearts are effectively the second-biggest club in Scotland right now. This constant late payment of wages means they are not acting like it.

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