Small Squad & Youth Focus: How will Romanov & Hearts restructure long term?

Following a turbulent week down Gorgie way, Vladimir Romanov has hinted strongly at not only drastic cost cutting measures at Hearts, but also that he is open to the possibility of selling on at least some of his stake in the Tynecastle club.

Little surprise really, especially in a struggling economy in which the Russian born businessman’s personal wealth has diminished considerably, almost in tandem with his once great dreams for his adopted Scottish club.

Personally, I can’t pretend I don’t feel more than a little disappointment that Romanov won’t continue to finance us above what our realistic means are, but at the same time I’d have no problem with cutting back and falling into line with the rest of the non Old Firm SPL clubs. It would, however, be nice if he’d just make things a little clearer sometimes, rather than giving our new manager league winning targets before then going on, just months later, to talk of cutting back and building for the future.

The stark reality is Hearts have had a monopoly on players outwith the Old Firm simply because we paid far better wages than the rest of the SPL, but this was mainly because of Romanov’s funding – and without it we are in no position to maintain such a level. In Romanov’s latest statement on the club website, he insists that “Hearts supporters will have an opportunity in the forthcoming season to also see some of the best young players in the country competing for a place in Hearts first team” – and I am more than open to the idea of focusing on young talent, and offloading many of our overpaid stars.

Our wagebill is certainly far less than it once was in Romanov’s era, at one point reaching £13m, but even at the current level of around £8m it is still nowhere near the recommended level of 60% of turnover. Recent years have seen the turnover at the club drop to approximately £8m, so I’d hazard a guess that just now we’re running at around 100% wage to turnover ratio(although I have read some people talking of a 120% level, which would suggest an even lower turnover). Going on these figures, if we want to operate at the optimum level then we need to reduce that wagebill to £4.8m – which is the level that clubs such as Aberdeen and Hibs currently work with.

It may sound like a drastic reduction, but to be honest our main issue is with squad size. At the moment I see the best part of 30 players in our squad who are ‘first team’ players – in terms of ones who can no longer be considered youth players anymore, and will be on a professional contract. Why do we need so many?

I admit that it’s a far cry from the days of apparent 60 strong Hearts squads, but it is still too many – and with our Under-19 side doing fantastically well, currently leading the division, it is also potentially stopping some of these stars breaking through.

I’m no financial expert, but in my eyes you could still pay a small number of experienced players a more than decent SPL wage, and then have a strong youth policy as backup, and still remain well within a feasible budget. For instance, if you had 16 players on an average wage of £4,000 (still more than most players outwith the Old Firm and Hearts will earn) then that equates to around £3.5m per year. If we are then aiming for a budget of say £4.8m (to reach the 60% of turnover level) then you would leave yourself with £1.3m per annum for youth players, which is around £25,000 per week. Surely with that sort of wage structure you could build a strong first team squad, even if it is small in numbers, and then reinforce the team with the most talented youth players. If players get injured, suspended or simply lose form – bring in some young players and give them their opportunity. Deal with shorter contracts for more experienced players, and if youth player progress and earn full-time contracts, then some first team players can be released at the end of their deals.

16 may also be too small a squad of first team players, and to be honest you could easily increase that and reduce the average wage – as £4,000 is actually reasonably high, with many first team stars at SPL clubs earning a quarter of that at the moment. I may also be drastically underestimating the cost of youth contracts when you total everyone up, but this is just a rough theory and the main focus is really on having a small core of experienced players with plenty of youth waiting in the wings.

Now by no means am I claiming that this is some sort of ingenious answer, or an easy to implement plan. I’m merely throwing out there my thoughts on the issue. Rangers have worked wonders with a small squad, bringing in younger players such as Gregg Wylde when the opportunity arose. Indeed, it actually seems to have HELPED the Ibrox club that they have had such a small squad, as it seems to have allowed them to gel as a team far better than other sides, and create a fantastic work ethic and spirit among the players.

I’ve been just as guilty as the next Hearts fan when it came to dreaming about breaking the Old Firm dominance and maybe being part of a new era in Scottish football, one where the league trophy went somewhere else other than just Glasgow every year. And it may well happen yet, but if we need to take a step back and hold off on our ambitions for the time being, then I’m OK with that too. It’s a harsh financial world out there just now, in particular in Scottish football, and it seems that all of us now have to cut out cloth accordingly.

L Dunsire

Hearts supporter and film enthusiast from Musselburgh. Follow me on Twitter @lauriedunsire