HEARTS owner Ann Budge has confessed that she regrets not dismissing Craig Levein during the summer and revealed she was ‘uncomfortable’ with his appointment as head coach in the first place.
Budge was in a candid mood as she addressed shareholders at a fiery annual general meeting in Tynecastle Park’s Gorgie Suite yesterday.
For the first time in her five-year reign, she was without Levein by her side at the event following his removal as both head coach and director of football in October.
The grilling prompted Budge to reflect honestly on Levein’s move from the boardroom to the dugout in September 2017 and her subsequent reluctance to relieve him of those duties.
“I took Craig on with a very specific remit in mind, he helped me re-establish the football operation at Hearts [as director of football],” said Budge.
“I didn’t ask Craig to offer his services as first-team manager. In truth, I was very uncomfortable with it. But I spoke to him, the board spoke to him and he wanted to do it. We wanted to back him. It could quite easily be said ‘yes, I made a mistake’.
“The other mistake I think I made was in not looking for a new manager in the summer.
“If we had done it at that point we could have ensured that Craig left – if not on a high, at a point where there had been some success.
“I think the Scottish Cup final camouflaged things a little bit.
“He didn’t have any desire to leave. He wanted to keep trying to tweak things and wait for players coming back. But maybe I should have taken the decision out of his hands at that point. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.”
A query regarding why Levein is still being employed by the club behind the scenes was met by applause, while Budge’s defence of ‘everyone is allowed to get things wrong’ regarding the signing of David Vanecek in January was met by loud heckles, including a cry of ‘he was always wrong’.
It was also suggested that his presence may ‘undermine’ the work of his successor Daniel Stendel, which Budge vehemently dismissed and emphasised that the German is eminently comfortable with the decision.
It prompted one shareholder to urge his fellow supporters to stop ‘kicking the man while he is down.’
“When I came in five-and-a-half years ago even then there were a hardcore of supporters who would never be Craig fans,” added Budge, addressing the media after the AGM. “So it’s not new. I just don’t know why they can’t drop it. The guy has lost his job. He’s working his way out of the club.”
Budge, meanwhile, has revealed that Levein’s former assistant, Austin MacPhee, is working from his home in Fife to avoid any ‘conflicts’ amid a changing of the guard at Hearts.
However, he is set to play a pivotal role in what appears certain to be a busy January of transfer activity.
“Austin MacPhee is here with a specific remit, a specific job, and he has been asked to work at home so that we don’t have a conflict,” continued Budge.
“Austin has a lot of strengths and is clued up on the recruitment, scouting, video analysis.
“He has been given responsibility for helping to shape the team – moving out players that Daniel believes won’t fit his style of football, and identifying players who will.
“Daniel will tell us what he needs and we’ll go about trying to get those players.”
Budge, who confirmed that she has started the process of interviewing for the position of sporting director, is also seeking to bring Stendel’s ex-Barnsley assistant Chris Stern to the club but those negotiations are made more challenging by the fact he is on gardening leave with the Tykes.
“I’ve got some phone calls to make,” she added. “Daniel wants to bring in his own assistant and we are working on that at the minute. I’ve discussed an approach but I need to talk to Leslie [Blair, Hearts’ club lawyer] about that.
“There are contractual obligations that are nothing to do with us.”
While accounts showing a £1.6 million profit for the year ending June 2019 were signed off on yesterday, Budge revealed the club are £400,000 down on forecasts for this campaign, largely due to the knock-on effect of dismal performances.
However, asked whether the club have any contingencies in place in the event of relegation, Budge replied: “No we don’t.
“If we get another two or three months down the line and things are not going better, then you can be sure we’ll make contingency plans but, right now, I am optimistic that, given where we are in the season, there is plenty of time to turn this around.”