BY ALAN TEMPLE – CCP_Sport
ANN BUDGE has joked that cheeky Celtic directors were praying a power cut might salvage their unbeaten streak. Instead, the Hearts owner was able to lap up the most electrifying afternoon of her reign as the men in maroon illuminated Tynecastle.
The Jambos romped to an extraordinary 4-0 win over Brendan Rodgers’ previously imperious outfit, pulling the plug on their run of 69 matches without defeat.
However, Budge could have been forgiven for fearing the worst when the lights went out in Hearts’ new main stand at half-time.
“We were just getting ready to go back out for the second half and I was standing talking to the Celtic directors and everything went out,” laughed Budge. “I said ‘I do not believe this, this cannot be happening’. That would not have been a good moment to experience!
“There was lots of humour from them, saying ‘we just can’t let our record go!’ It was all in good spirits.
“But it wasn’t until I got a phone call and then a text saying it was just a fuse – it could be fixed – that I really relaxed.
“I have to say, as the game progressed, I was like every other Hearts supporter, thinking ‘we’re not there yet’. But then the twirly [scarves] and everything else they did, was fantastic. I didn’t do the Poznan, but I did allow myself a smile when it was happening.
“It’s probably the best I have seen in all my years, certainly since I took over. The atmosphere was fantastic. Just to see so many smiling faces, you don’t always get those but they were absolutely having a ball and I thought that was terrific.”
Such a comprehensive, historic victory in their penultimate home fixture of 2017 went a long way to making some of the travails of a tumultuous 12 months worthwhile for Budge and her fellow directors.
The self-made IT millionaire was forced to dismiss a head coach for the first time since assuming control of the club she has supported since childhood, showing Ian Cathro the door following a miserable tenure.
Following an external interview process, director of football Craig Levein was chosen to succeed his own protege to a lukewarm reception from many Jambos.
The upheaval in the dugout, however, has paled in comparison compared to the stresses of constructing a new main stand which, as she confirmed to yesterday’s annual general meeting, will now cost £15 million, £3 million over budget – albeit mystery benefactors will help to pick up the slack.
Its opening was delayed twice, necessitating four ‘home’ fixtures to take place at Murrayfield, and the visit of Partick Thistle on November 19 was only green lit by Police Scotland on the morning of the game.
In the subsequent fixtures there has been a delayed kick-off, fire alarms and, of course, a power cut. Little wonder, then, that Budge cannot wait to focus on the football when the calendar ticks over to January 2018.
“Every so often this year, I’ve had to think: remember it’s a football club, not a construction business,” she smiled. “I am looking forward to that and being able to just look at how we can also develop the other bits of the business.
“So much has happened. When I was putting the words and slides together [for the AGM] and I looked at all the photographs, there were so many to choose from.
“We have essentially had two changes of manager, which is not straightforward, and clearly we all know what has happened with the new stand, but I think we have continued to develop and now I hope that we will see quite a growth.
“I’m sure I must have had trauma and stress before, but this last year – maybe even just the last six months – has been a worry, thinking ‘is everything going to come together?’ ‘Are we going to get back to Tynecastle?’ ‘Are we going to really be able to pull all these plans off?’ That was really quite stressful.
“I’ve thought about whether I would do anything different quite a lot. Someone recently asked me if we had been too ambitious; too aggressive in our timeframe for the stadium. And yes, I did put a lot of pressure on it, but we really needed to continue to play football here.
“We simply didn’t have the resources to say ‘let’s play football away from Tynecastle for a year’. That would have floored us in a number of different ways. So, would I have done things differently? Probably a few small things, but overall I think I would have stuck with the plan.”
Budge was speaking immediately after presenting Hearts annual accounts to shareholders which showed a profit of £2.3 million, largely due to an exceptional donation of £2.5 million from a mystery benefactor.
Indeed, the only point the AGM in the Gorgie Suite got feisty was when one supporter accused the Jambos of being bullied by city rivals, Hibs ahead of the meeting between the sides at Tynecastle next week.
“Craig [Levein], was asked the question earlier ‘when are you going to stand up to Hibs?’”, Budge added. “I do believe we will come out fighting.”
BUDGE: ‘RELAXED’ CRAIG LEVEIN HAS BEEN THE STEADYING INFLUENCE WE NEEDED
ANN BUDGE insists Craig Levein has actually become more relaxed since stepping back into the dugout after hailing the former Scotland boss as the steadying influence Hearts desperately needed.
The 53-year-old has gradually put his stamp on a floundering Hearts side since succeeding the hapless Ian Cathro, underlined by a sensational 4-0 win over the previously imperious Celtic.
That was a sixth game without defeat and a third successive triumph for the capital club. They have not conceded a goal in almost five hours of football.
And, having seen Levein’s frustrations in close quarters over the last 12 months, Budge is thrilled to see him enjoying a new lease of life as he revitalises the Jambos.
“He has got that spark back,” smiled Budge. “I was watching him on Sunday and I sent him a wee text saying ‘I haven’t seen you quite so animated for a long time’. He’s enjoying it, is definitely more relaxed and I feel as if there is a steady pair of hands there.
“I used to sit just a few seats away from him in the stand and, believe me, there were many times when he was hugely frustrated.
“If things go wrong next week, we’ll be back to square one. But, although this might sound a bit pompous – I don’t really feel we need to be vindicated. We made the decision, we made it for good, sensible reasons and Craig has done a very good job.
“He knows everything that is going on, not just the football side. He is able to give reassurance to the other directors about what’s happening with the team as well as dealing with the football department.”
The success of veteran coach Levein has raised questions regarding Hearts’ commitment to producing and promoting young bosses, the philosophy outlined when Budge took over the club in 2014 and which inspired the appointments of Robbie Neilson and Ian Cathro.
However, the Jambos owner is keen to see Levein return to the directors box when next batch of talented young coaches are ready to take the helm at Tynecastle.
“That plan is still there,” Budge added. “We are still committed to developing young coaches. The team we have there, Jon [Daly], Liam [Fox] and Austin [MacPhee], all know how they fit in and are all learning from each other.
“I really think that, at the end of a period of time, we’re going to have a batch of coaches. Would Craig still be part of that? Yes, I hope so. He’s happy here.”
Budge also outlined her hopes that the emergence of 16-year-old wonderkids Harry Cochrane and Anthony McDonald will just be the tip of the iceberg in a golden generation.
She added: “Craig has watched Harry [Cochrane] and Ant [McDonald] develop – he’s been talking about them forever. So, if he thinks they can cope, that’s good enough for me. He’s not careless, either. He wouldn’t put them in unless he was sure.
“I’ve been up to the performance academy and I’ve met a number of the young guys who are now there. I seriously hope it’s going to be a continuous supply of at least half-a-dozen every year.”