Thursday, 9 November 2000

Jefferies departs amid uncertainty at Tynecastle

By Bernard Thompson

Published in Irish Time online edition,

As supporters of Heart of Midlothian come to terms with the departure of their manager, Jim Jefferies, the reactions are of anger, frustration and disappointment, but not surprise. On winning Hearts' first major trophy for 36 years with a Scottish Cup win, in 1998, there was optimism at the club that they were finally making substantial progress on the field.

However, neither the Cup success, nor a major sponsorship deal was to signal a sustained challenge to their domestic game's established order. Last year, the Scottish Media Group, invested £8m in Hearts, with the promise from Chief Executive, Chris Robinson, was that half of that amount would be spent on players. In fact, less than £2m went on transfer fees, with the club arguing that a similar sum was allotted to player salaries. This infuriated supporters, who felt that they had been betrayed.

In a catastrophic failure of communication, Robinson appeared to be back-peddling from his earlier promises and it is clear that Jefferies had been under the same illusion as the supporters. Instead, after believing that he would be in a position to sign players of greater stature, Jefferies would be further dismayed to find that financial problems meant the gradual disintegration of his playing squad.

Since the Cup win, Neil McCann, Paul Ritchie, David Weir and, most recently, Gary Naysmith have left the club, representing much of the core talent at Jefferies disposal. The departure of Colin Cameron has been seen as inevitable since the season began, and it has been made clear to Darren Jackson that the club cannot afford to honour a contractual clause, guaranteeing him a one year extension. By any measure, Jefferies was in an irresolvable position.

The extent of Hearts, financial difficulties were indicated with the revelation, earlier in the season, that the club was attempting to manage losses of £250,000 per month. Clearly, this meant little prospect of improvement and an offer by former Chairman, Leslie Deans, to invest £2.25m in the club led to increased acrimony.

Again, Jefferies was in the middle of a situation that was outwith his control. Deans is a friend and admirer of Jefferies but his offer was dependent on the removal of Robinson, who had been known to be lukewarm in his support of the manager. The claim that Robinson had proposed dismissing Jefferies infuriated fans and was roundly criticised in the media, where a drama of personalities was increasingly represented.

For Robinson, who remains defiant in his statements, the question of Jefferies future has always seemed to be critical to his role within the club. Robinson's support in the boardroom still holds.

However, the warmth generated by his relationship with the fans approaches absolute zero and yesterday's events will surely test the resolve of the directors. Meanwhile the comments by Paul Ritchie, now with Manchester City, that no one can succeed at the club while Robinson remains, reflect an opinion that is widely held.

The timing of Jefferies' resignation, on the same day that Stuart McCall announced that he had no wish to manage Bradford City has caused some people to link the two events. Jefferies may well go to Bradford - he must be a strong candidate - but, unquestionably, his commitment to Hearts was total. If the availability of the Premiership club's position had any bearing on his decision, it is unlikely that there were any sinister dealings, as the club's agreeing to pay him for the remainder of his contract would indicate.

But he was also aware that his own reputation was at stake. Results have been mixed and there have been recent fan protests outside Tynecastle. Jefferies will have been well aware that it was better to leave while the supporters remained solidly behind him than risk his own credibility with further decline and he had voiced concerns over the security of his position, earlier in the season.

He will also be aware that the timing of his departure was astute, in terms of the club politics. The shouting matches by fans outside the ground had been in addition to a red card protest during a recent match with St Johnstone. Again, Robinson was the main target of abuse.

With Jefferies having stated his desire to return to Hearts in the future, the pressure on Robinson and the Board of Directors is intense. The touted appointment of former player, Craig Levein, might buy a degree of goodwill but it is difficult to see how he could improve on Jefferies achievements.

Last night, the protesters were not concerned with results and performances but were a highly inflamed group of supporters reacting to a situation which, as far as they are concerned, has clearly defined heroes and villains. In the last three years, Hearts have experienced the good and the bad. Now they must prepare for the truly ugly.

No comments: