BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Ann Budge will soon be roaming the corridors of power at Hampden – but the Hearts owner can still recall sprinting the streets of Switzerland . . . with a bottle of beer in each pocket.
Budge, who is set to be named on the SPFL board later this month, is lapping up every moment of the Jambos’ European adventure, which sees them travel to Malta this morning ahead of their clash with Birkirkara.
While this is her first continental campaign as chairwoman, she is no stranger to foreign trips as a supporter.
Along with her daughter, Carol, Budge looks back fondly on invading bars and public squares across Europe and, in particular, the unforgettable night in Basle when Robbie Neilson lashed home a wonder-goal in the last minute to secure a 2-1 win.
Little did she know that 12 years later she would be running the club and that workmanlike right-back – the apple of her daughter’s eye – would be head coach.
She recalled: “I used to go to these games with my daughter, it was just the two of us in most cases. She just loves being part of a supporters’ group so I remember standing in squares drinking beer and going into supermarkets to buy cans of beer.
“She reminded me the other day – I think it must have been in Basle – of running to catch a tram with a couple of bottles in each pocket!
“That’s something all supporters just do, really. I always managed to stay sober because I was looking after my daughter . . . but she didn’t!
“Basle might have been my highlight. I have mentioned it to Robbie. Everybody knows I rate him very highly and we’ve got a really good relationship. But the fact he was a Hearts player and I have seen him in these situations does add that little bit of magic.
“He was also my daughter’s favourite player for an awful long time!”
Budge has urged every supporter to relish the return to Europe, given how close they came to not having a club to support.
Just two years have passed since Budge bought the club – newly relegated to the Championship – out of administration for £2.5 million with a view to ultimately passing control on to fans’ group, Foundation of Hearts.
She smiled: “I didn’t believe for a minute [a return to Europe] would be this quick. I remember being asked at the end of the season-before-last whether it would be Europe next. I just laughed and said ‘give us a chance!’
“When we came into the hotel in Tallinn last week, within two or three minutes I was asked for a selfie by a guy who had flown over from Alicante.
“It had taken him almost 24 hours to get there and you think ‘yeah, that’s what it’s really about’. It’s fantastic, particularly so for the supporters. I met a few of them last week in Tallinn and they’re really up for it.”
The Europa League provides a tantalising prelude of the upcoming domestic campaign, in which Hearts are keen to mount a more concerted challenge to Celtic.
However, she does acknowledge that it is difficult to set targets, given the uncertainty regarding what to expect from a Premiership which will include Rangers and a Celtic side revitalised by Brendan Rodgers.
Budge added: “People keep saying to me we’ve overachieved and created a rod for our own backs. I don’t think we’ve overachieved but it will be a very different type of season.
“In the first year it was very clear what we needed to do. Second year it was top six. Next year, to me, we have to do – I don’t want to use the word ‘consolidate’ because that always sounds a bit negative – is get consistency.
“It’s about being consistently good and getting consistently better. How that translates given a different set of competition remains to be seen.”