Football: Hearts beat for a nation

Financial sense allows the Edinburgh club to challenge the big two.
FEW FINANCIAL analysts need further evidence of the impending global recession, but Hearts would gladly take the witness stand. While Scottish football is not on the World Bank's list of needy cases to be baled out, there is little doubt increased spending has failed to dent the gap between rich and poor in the Premier League.

Despite a season of achievement on the pitch, which banked a trophy in the boardroom for the first time in 36 years, and a record turnover off it, Hearts have been going over the figures and wondering if they can resist offers to sell off their best players. Rangers have made a pounds 1.5m bid for David Weir, the classy Scotland defender, in the knowledge that Hearts may bite at an offer which is below Weir's value simply because his contract is up next June.

It is not so much the recession biting, as reality. The club that won the Scottish Cup last May, and pushed Celtic and Rangers to the limit in an exciting three-way title race, has been paying for its ambition this season. The Stock Exchange-listed club recorded a pre-tax loss of pounds 1.94m, much of it due to a wage bill that had soared by 33 per cent as Jim Jefferies tied up key players on longer contracts and bigger salaries. Celtic's wage bill is up around 30 per cent but a turnover of pounds 27.8m ensures that new arrivals or bumping up the salaries of top peformers such as Henrik Larsson on improved contracts, can be accommodated.

Yet, the Hearts chairman, Leslie Deans, is unlikely to be looking for a spot under Blackfriars Bridge, as he contemplates the future. "Smallish clubs will always manage to succeed on the pitch even if they don't have the capital of their rivals off it," he reflected. "The success of Lens, who won the French title and defeated Arsenal in the Champions' League, offers someone like ourselves encouragement. We have spent over pounds 9m transforming Tynecastle into an 18,000-seat arena over the last few years which is now capable of hosting internationals. That is a long way from the state of the club when myself and my partner, Chris Robinson [the Hearts' chief executive] paid pounds 2m to take control four years ago.

"Our principle is that you only get back what you put in. It was important to build up the stadium to attract money and supporters back to the club. But we know there is no point in building stands if the product suffers. We have managed to keep Jim Jefferies happy over the last few years with what he can spend on players. It's not huge in comparison with Celtic and Rangers, but the money is there."

Deans, an Edinburgh lawyer, acknowledges that Jefferies' keen eye for a player (he brought Weir with him from Falkirk in 1996 for just pounds 250,000) helps balance the books. But the pursuit of the Old Firm has pushed up salaries with imports such as the French international midfielder, Vincent Guerin, who came from Paris St Germain on a reported pounds 8,000 a week.

"This is a business," assures Deans, "and we have a duty to shareholders to spend prudently, but we are determined to drive Hearts forward. Winning the cup revitalised this club. It is the best Hearts squad in living memory and more people want to see us, which is why we sold 12,000 season tickets over the summer."

Deans wants to keep Weir, and others such as Gary Naysmith, Paul Ritchie and Neil McCann. "We would rather push the boat out for someone who is important to us. There has been speculation saying David is off to Rangers, but it is just speculation. If bids come in, they will be considered. But there will be no cheap sales.

"Anyway," Deans added, "Scottish football needs a challenge to the Old Firm. It needs a vibrant Hearts. Celtic and Rangers would agree with that ideal and so will Sky who want a competitive league for their investment."

l Marko Viduka sensationally quit Celtic last night. The Australian striker sealed a pounds 3m move from Croatia Zagreb this week after his application for a work permit was approved.

Viduka trained with his new team mates on Thursday but failed to join them on Friday and yesterday. The club released a statement saying that Viduka does not consider himself to be in a fit state of mind to play football and that it was his intention to return home to Australia.