New home not where the Hearts are

By Phil Gordon
Sunday 18 January 2004 01:00

Edinburgh's buoyant property market means there is never a shortage of clients. The Queen keeps a palace at one end of town, while Harvey Nichols waited for ages to get an exclusive Princes Street site for their store. It's easy to see why Hearts want to cash in. However, rather than downsizing, as most would do on celebrating their 130th birthday, Scotland's third largest club are now at war with their supporters because of a plan to move into a des res just around the corner that is far too big for comfort.

When Hearts face Celtic at Tynecastle today in the Scottish Premier League, the home fans will be waving red cards at their own board to protest against a proposal to quit their ground of over a century for nearby Murrayfield.

The home of Scottish rugby is just half a mile away and is seen as part of the rescue package that the Hearts board want to embrace to wipe out the club's £17.6m debt. Chris Robinson, the chief executive, insists that Hearts have been told they can make around £15m on the sale of the Tynecastle site, because its close proximity to Edinburgh city centre makes it ideal for the kind of luxury housing development that has buyers queueing round the corner.

However, angry fans will require a conversion on the road to Murrayfield. Few want to swap the most atmospheric ground in Scotland - that will have its 17,000 seats filled for the visit of Celtic - for a place where the 67,000 capacity would swallow up Hearts' average crowd of 14,000.

"The solution to our problems is not Murrayfield," one Hearts shareholder, Robert McGrail, told the club's agm last Monday. McGrail, a property developer, naturally, wants to buy Tynecastle and lease it back - with a new main stand thrown in - to the club. That suggestion went down well at the meeting, though not with the board.

"If we remain at Tynecastle, we will continue to make a loss and we will die," warned Robinson, who says the cosmetic fix of giant screening at Murrayfield can hide all those empty seats. "We have already turned down an offer of £12m for the ground. We know we can get more. Our debt can be wiped out in two or three years." Many fans are unwilling to allow Robinson to float his bold plan, given that he is the person who has overseen the explosion in Hearts' debt since they won the Scottish Cup in 1998.

The spiralling wage bill has already been tackled. Craig Levein made huge cuts when he took over as manager in December 2000, selling key players: Antti Niemi to Southampton, Gary Naysmith to Everton and Colin Cam-eron to Wolves for around £5m. But now Levein has been told he will have to cut even deeper if the club stay at Tynecastle.

"I have got to get £850,000 off my wage bill for next season," he said. "Every time we keep cutting back, I hope that is the end of it. Our long-term plan is to develop players - we are opening our youth academy in April - and really my job is simply to put a team on the pitch. Emotionally, we all want to stay at Tynecastle. I was a player here for 12 years but I am looking at it on a different level now."

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