Hearts vs Rangers
Since Hearts entered administration two weeks ago, there has been a great deal of hypothesising about the future of the club based on recent experiences in Scottish football. The most recent, and therefore most accessible to those in the media who lack long term memory, is that of Rangers and there have been articles published on the comparison between our two clubs.
Craig Mather noted on the official Rangers website that he would watch with interest to see what transpires with regard the situation at Tynecastle. This statement was ill-received by some in maroon even though Mather's statement was hardly one demanding Hearts face a punishment equal with that of Rangers. Last week, Tom English wrote a fairly lengthy opinion piece in the Scotsman clearly stating his view that the two situations were not analogous. On this site, Alasdair McKillop followed up with his view that English was perhaps not presenting the most objective arguments to support his case.
As a Hearts fan, I must acknowledge that there is some comfort in the fact that Rangers were allowed to re-enter the league set up after going through what we all must recognise as being, at least as it currently stands, a significantly more damaging situation than that at Hearts. The precedent for our club to continue exists and that is reassuring. Coming out of administration is of course not a foregone conclusion, despite the Hearts support rallying round and raising significant sums of money since the announcement was made that the club would see the figure of Bryan Jackson entering the doors at Tynecastle.
Rangers is, as I've already noted, the most recent example of a Scottish club going through financial difficulty and is therefore an easy fall-back option. The key problem, in my view, of most people using Rangers as a comparative tool for the financial situation at just about any other club is that a full understanding of the problems at Rangers still eludes most commentators.
There is nothing new when it comes to a lack of clarity about football club ownership, of course. Just look at Hearts. The Chris Robinson days ended with Tynecastle apparently up for sale and a move to the local-but-cavernous Murrayfield Stadium seemingly imminent. What was most egregious to Hearts fans about the potential sale of Tynecastle was the fact that to sell the ground would have been to sell a part of the club's soul. Robinson may have been the owner, but he was in fact merely the custodian of the club - something few owners outside of the late Eddie Thompson at Dundee United have properly acknowledged.
The recent imposition of "operate within your means" regulations by UEFA has been designed to prevent clubs from going down the troubled path that Hearts know all too well: speculating to accumulate, then failing to accumulate, then just failing. The example of Leeds United is held up as one possible lesson for clubs trying to spend their way to success. The question that Hearts fans keep returning to is what might have happened if George Burley hadn't been "mutually consented" out of his job at Tynecastle. Valdas Ivanauskas may have secured the Scottish Cup in a dire slugfest against Gretna - another team that has gone through the financial mill - at the end of the season, but the club's title challenge petered out, holding off Rangers by one point to secure second place, a full seventeen points behind Celtic.
How Hearts got in our current situation is a result of a number of factors. We were £20m in debt when Romanov took over, but mainly it was a result of an attempt to challenge the hegemony of the Glasgow sides.
The problem for clubs similar to Hearts circa 2003, namely being on the fringes of challenging for the title but ultimately and consistently a dozen or so points short, is that there is no easy way to build a sustainable challenge without a short term cash injection - one that would push a club towards violation of the new UEFA regulations. If you get a wealthy owner in, like David Murray in the mid-1980s or Romanov in the middle of the last decade (just using the comparison to illustrate this point), who has the cash to put a highly competitive side on the pitch in a very short space of time then you jump on the opportunity. This is not a new phenomena in football.
If we acknowledge that there are similarities and differences between the cases at Rangers and Hearts, then the reasons for making comparison between the two are really a matter of perception. There is a clear difference in the way that Hearts are perceived in relation to Rangers and this difference in perception has impacted the way that the two situations are portrayed in the popular media.
I think the difference stems from the perception of what these clubs were doing that got them into serious financial difficulties. The popular view is that Hearts spent outwith their means in order to try and bring success to Tynecastle: it was an aspirational debt, if you like. The Romanov Project was clearly to spend high, bring success to Tynecastle which would bring with it the associated financial benefits (prize money, higher profile, increased support, increased sponsorship) which would then bring the wages/turnover ratio into a more sustainable level. What happened was that the lack of success, partially Romanov's fault, meant that this ratio never became close enough. Like a bad gambler, good money - very recently brought in from the supporters - was thrown after bad and the debts spiraled out of control.
The contrast with the motivations that put Rangers in the position they were a year or so ago, or perhaps more importantly the popular perceptions of these motivations, is to me the crucial issue here. The perception, it seems to me, is that Rangers - or more accurately the ownership of the club - were more deliberate in their actions, somehow more calculating, or deliberately careless. Proving malfeasance on the part of those in control at Ibrox is, by and large, impossible, just as it is with Vladimir Romanov or the Marr brothers at Dundee.
The word "cheating" gets thrown around an awful lot when it comes to football clubs ending up in financial difficulty. Celtic fans have used it about their great rival and now Hibs fans are using it about their own great rival.
John Brown used the word in reference to Hearts seeing off administration until after the 2012-2013 season had ended in order to avoid relegation which would have come - admittedly partly a result of the dismal on-field performance as well - with a fifteen point deduction. Perhaps "Bomber" would do well to have a glance back at the recent history of his own current club. Did those clubs who lost to a Claudio Caniggia or Fabrizio Ravanelli inspired Dundee side feel cheated? Ravanelli, for example, was released a couple of days after scoring a hat-trick against Clyde. Dundee racked up a debt of £23m before plunging into administration, a figure not too dissimilar to that at Tynecastle.
So riled have been some supporters that emails of complaint have been sent to the various governing bodies. It has to be one of the worst jobs in sport to be on the end of that email address. A constant stream of incoherent ramblings from the deranged minds that see fit to actually email in complaints about football clubs to the governing bodies.
What has happened at Hearts, just as happened at Motherwell, Livingston, Gretna and Dundee before us, is perceived and therefore portrayed as a simple case of spending outwith ones means without a sufficient end product. I can only speak relatively confidently to Hearts own experience, but had the 2005-2006 season ended more happily, perhaps with a more convincing title challenge, then the results of the Romanov experiment might have been drastically different.
A few Rangers fans have offered support and well wishes at this time which is of course much appreciated, if unnecessary. Many Hearts fans, like many other SPL supporters, were quite without class when Rangers got into difficulties. What might be a joke between friends is quite different when it's directed at an entire support. The Rangers fans who have offered support, many of them among you reading this, have come to the recognition, as too many Jambos have done far too late, that it is, as always, the ordinary supporter who loses out and those ordinary supporters have similarities that outweigh their differences considerably. The threat of losing ones club forces many to dip into their pockets, some deeply so. I personally have bought a season ticket, which I'll never use. Others have done similar. I'm sure there are many in Govan who did the same.
At some point, Scottish football fans will have to realise that while we may have irreconcilable differences when it comes to football matches, we are actually very similar and the problems that affect one club can very easily affect others. Too many outside of those clubs named above, as well as others like Dunfermline, have kept their heads in the sand too resolutely. We need to understand the ramifications of the way our clubs are governed. I hope that many Jambos will take heed of those articles on The Rangers Standard and in the forthcoming "Follow We Will" book, but I suspect that far too many, Jambos or otherwise, will not.