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Sports Features of Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Source: Opoku, Christopher

The Mess that is Hearts of Oak

Exactly 9 years ago, Ghana was preparing for a political election that did not involve the then President, J.J Rawlings. Ghanaians were also preparing for the CAF Champions League final between Esperance of Tunisia and Accra Hearts of Oak. At the time, the champions had matured after three years of coaching leadership provided by Jones Attuquayefio, and a court injunction on transfers by the club meant that players stayed with the club over that period. It was a delightful team to watch and the way that Esperance were dispatched by a Hearts squad containing the likes of Charles Taylor, Ishmael Addo, Emmanuel Osei Kuffuor, Charles Allotey, Agyemang Duah and Stephen Tetteh amongst others, was indeed the stuff of legends. Off the field, Hearts of Oak’s first African triumph meant that financially the club was going to benefit. After all, the club bagged $1 million for lifting the trophy, apart from money paid out for each goal scored. Also, the collapse of the FIFA World Club Cup during that time meant that Hearts were compensated to the tune of almost $700,000.

Fast forward to today, and the reality could not be more different. Already, the management and board of the club have taken the decision not to play in next year’s CAF Champions League in spite of the fact that Hearts are the current league champions, the club is reportedly in debt to the tune of just under 2.7 million Ghana Cedis (27 billion old Ghana Cedis; approximately $1.8 million), the club is currently lying 13th on the league log after 8 match days and there are divisions not only amongst the supporters leaders but amongst the board of directors. The question is what has gone wrong?

Well, to call a spade and spade, even though past and present managements and boards of directors of the club have consisted of brilliant individuals, collectively, both bodies have since 2001 presided over the gradual decline of the club. Everybody who has been on either body over the last 9 years should take a long hard look at themselves because they have failed miserably. No, I’m not talking about on-the-field achievements (Hearts have won 2 of the last 4 league titles), but I am referring to long-term planning as per ways and means to provide an environment of self-sustainability for the club. There has been a continuous recycling of management members, most of whom have come from within the board, but have failed to halt the increasing rate of the club’s debt level. The club is living from hand to mouth and this cannot continue!

A little digging by this writer has turned up the fact that over 200 players have been bought by the club since 2001, representing a huge outlay. That is an average of 25 players over each of the last 8 seasons. Needless to say, the policy of bringing talent through the feeder club, Auroras was thrown to the winds and a lot of emphasis has been placed on recruiting players for large sums of money, without recourse to the worsening financial situation at the club. Loans and benevolent donations have become the order of the day, but will this sustain the club in the long run? I think not!

What about coaches? Well, take a look at this list: Oti Akenten, Ofei Ansah, Mitko Dobrev, Abdul Karim Zito, Eyal Lachman, Sampson Lamptey, Kosta Papic, Nii Noi Thompson, and Ayman El-Yamany. That is a total of nine coaches in four years. Hardly a recipe for continuity, is there? With such happenings, how then can a team be built to become a successful one? Also, there are allegations that some of the players are managed by some of the board members and so there is trouble when such players do not figure in the coach’s plans. The feud between Eyal Lachman and director Harry Zakkour which resulted in the departure of the Israeli coach is a case in point.

Also, management seemed to make panic decisions on the coach. Kosta Papic had helped secure 44 points out of the 52 that won Hearts of Oak the title last season, but a string of defeats and he was fired, in spite of the fact that every team will at one point or the other, go through a poor run of form. The question I keep asking myself is that, having taken the decision not to play in Africa next year, did it make sense to fire the Serbian coach who had effectively guided the team to Champions League qualification? What was then the rationale for appointing a stop-gap coach and recruiting players before bringing in an unknown coach? (There are yet-to-be confirmed suspicions that he is a physical trainer and not a coach) Why was Nii Noi Thompson not given the chance to build the team in his image, so that he would have gotten to know his players during the off-season? In fact, what criteria was used in bringing in Ayman Elyamany? What was the financial sense in it? I ask because, again, digging by this writer has again revealed that he is being currently housed in a hotel at a cost of $100 a night and at the moment, he has rejected two apartments found by the club; one costing $800 a month and the other $1000 a month. This is against the backdrop that some members of the technical team have not been paid their salaries in seven months. Talk about financial management!

Certain players, I am told, are yet to receive their signing on fees, and yet the hierarchy is able to raise 12,000 Ghana Cedis (120 million cedis) to charter a flight to Wa for the team, regardless of the fact that since there are no league games until the 13th of December, a bus ride for the team, which would have cost about 2000 Ghana Cedis (20 million cedis), would probably have been more cost-effective, unless there is new cash sources for the club that no one knows about.

I will still maintain that even though Asante Kotoko and Accra Hearts of Oak are run differently, these two clubs, in their current states form a fantastic case study of how to effectively run a football club into the ground. For Hearts of Oak in particular, one wonders why, in the midst of all this, that there is a great reluctance on the part of the current board of directors to acknowledge that their mandate is over and call for a congress, in spite of the fact that it ended on November 25. With current debt levels, a squad lacking confidence and a growing sense of disquiet amongst its supporters, why won’t some of the board members be willing to step aside? (Because I am reliably informed that other members will want to do so). Perhaps, there is more to it than meets the eye. If you recall, this particular board appointed only one substantive Chief Executive in its 4-year tenure. The said CEO, Vincent Sowah Odotei lasted only three months. Perhaps, with the continuous appointment of several Interim Management Committees, the board failed to signal its intent to properly run the club. This is because there has been a distinct lack of effort by the powers-that-be, to educate their supporters that games cannot be won everyday and that perhaps it was time to set long-term goals for the club. So did this board really care? At this stage, with the current state the club is in now, will the proposed share flotation become a success? We will have to wait and see.

Hopefully, the Council of Patrons will on Thursday tell the Board of directors in no uncertain terms that they have to call the mandatory congress for new directors to be elected for due process to be taken. It is also the hope of this writer that the prospective board will have the courage to bring in a business and marketing expert to run the club on professional lines, so that gradually, the debt levels come down and that will effectively make the club a more attractive proposition to prospective investors. Eventually, that should rub off on the team itself. But this can only happen if self-seeking elements whose interests are themselves rather than the good of the club are gradually weeded out.

The supporters have been vocal, but it looks as though chasms are emerging amongst the leadership and it is regrettable that the National Chapters Committee chairman, Alhaji Akanbi and the National Organiser, Mohammed Alhassan were involved in a public altercation at the club’s secretariat this week over the same issue. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and it is important that the supporters know that Accra Hearts of Oak belongs to them and unite in one common purpose instead of allowing themselves to be used as pawns in the power-struggle going on at the club. Then, and only then can the mess that is Accra Hearts of Oak be cleared once and for all.