Hearts AGM: owner Ann Budge on ‘mystery benefactors’, being ‘on the verge’ of closing a section of Tynecastle due to crowd issues and backing Craig Levein in Scottish FA battle

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BY ALAN TEMPLE at the Hearts AGM – @CCP_Sport

ANN BUDGE has assured supporters that the £4m donated to Hearts by ‘mystery benefactors’ comes with no strings attached.

The Tynecastle chair addressed around 400 shareholders on Tuesday morning as the accounts for the year ending June 2018, showing a £1.8m profit, were signed off at the club’s annual general meeting (AGM).

However, those numbers were bolstered by the £3m ‘donation’ from individuals who wish to keep their identity anonymous. A further £1m has since been injected for the current financial year.

Given Hearts’ checkered ownership history, there was an understandable curiosity regarding the motivation of the backers, but Budge is adamant the only demand they have made is for a relaxation to the dress code in the board room.

“We have all been blown away by the generosity of these individuals and I can give 100 per cent assurance that they take no part in running any aspect of the club,” explained Budge.

“I receive a phone call that says ‘do you think Craig would appreciate a donation to help with the team’ but they have no say beyond that.

“The only thing they have asked is that we relax the dress code because, on their occasional visits to the boardroom, they don’t like wearing ties!

“It’s almost human nature to wonder what’s in it for them? But honestly, hand on heart, they just want to be philanthropic and like what we are doing.”

Budge stated that the benefactors’ assistance would not be required in such dramatic fashion in future campaigns, citing the construction of the new main stand and installation of a £1m hybrid pitch as extraordinary expenses last year.

Indeed, she believes the club will soon see the fruits of their labour, while continuing to invest heavily on infrastructure.

She outlined several new ventures for the club during the AGM, including a six-figure outlay on the Hearts Ladies side and a partnership with a Utah-based football club designed to exploit sponsorship opportunities and potentially snap up U.S. talent. Another further four clubs from North America are expected to be involved in that scheme.

Budge hopes to increase Hearts turnover to £14 million (from £12.1 million) for the financial year ending June 2019.

“We have invested very heavily for five years and I think that we need to continue that same approach,” she continued. “The big difference over the next two or so years is in terms of getting a return on our investments.

“We’re starting to see that return and then it’s about how we use that going forward. I genuinely believe we are in good shape.”

On a less heartening note, Budge concedes she is considering closing a portion of Tynecastle Park as a minority of supporters continue to ignore warnings about their unacceptable conduct.

Budge has written to season ticket holders in Section N on numerous occasions following their refusal to sit during matches, which has prompted complaints from those seated in close proximity.

“The supporters are almost embarrassed by some of the stuff that’s going on. We all are,” she said. “I have written to all of the season ticket holders in the section where we have the biggest problem, basically saying we will not tolerate unacceptable behaviour of any kind.

“We have written to them twice so the discussion now is: do I send one more letter saying ‘last chance or we close the section’? We are THIS close to closing a section to our own support because we don’t believe the behaviour is acceptable and we don’t want to be associated with it.

“Right now we are on the verge of closing the section. It would be the very last resort.”

The behaviour of Hearts supporters has been thrust under the microscope following a fractious Edinburgh derby against Hibernian in October, in which visiting manager Neil Lennon was struck by a coin.

However, Budge did notably hint that the recent case of alleged racist abuse towards Motherwell defender Christian Mbulu may not be as ‘clear-cut’ as first believed.

The club swiftly banned two supporters who were reported to police for aiming offensive chants towards the 22-year-old, based on video evidence collected by Motherwell officials.

“The report about the singing at the last game is not as clear-cut as it was reported to be,” continued Budge. “I’m still digging in to all of that.

“In the same way that I am the first person to condemn bad behaviour, if someone’s accused wrongly, I’ll be the first person to defend them.”

BUDGE BACKS LEVEIN IN SCOTTISH FA BATTLE

Meanwhile, Budge has vowed to defend Craig Levein to the hilt after the Hearts boss was charged by the Scottish FA for his withering criticism of Bobby Madden.

Levein stated his side were up against ’13 men’ in Gorgie and described the officials’ showing as ‘abysmal’ after the Jambos lost 2-1 against Rangers, courtesy of an offside winner by Alfredo Morelos, on December 2.

The hearing has now been moved to January 7, and Budge said: “We’ve already put in our reasons why I didn’t think he should have been charged, it’s largely around the understanding of when bias is bias, and when is it fair to say this particular performance was poor. There’s a difference.

“Secondly, in this sort of situation there have been similar remarks made and no action taken. Why should we take action against one but not others?”

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