Will women in Hearts and Hibs help lift football?

Ann Budge is taking the helm at Hearts. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Ann Budge is taking the helm at Hearts. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THE CV was impressive: a scout for Celtic, coach of the Iranian team, manager of Benfica’s youth team and a stint running the Qatari national squad.

And yet when it was announced on Wednesday that this incredibly experienced football manager had been appointed as coach to a French, league two side, it made headline news.

But then Helena Costa, pictured right, is, as her name suggests, a woman. And a woman coaching a male team, such as Clermont, in a proper football league in Europe, is a rarity. Yet there is a whisper of a breeze of change blowing through the game of football at the moment, at all levels.

While Karren Brady is still the first name that comes to mind when you consider women in a football club boardroom – even though it’s been 21 years since she first took the reins at Birmingham – it would seem that even in Scotland, the last bastion of fitba’ maleness, one of the last countries to countenance women even playing the game, never mind managing male teams or running clubs, boots are being laced up on other feet.

The Scottish women’s team is performing brilliantly and is on its way to the World Cup with a 100 per cent record – it’s even getting some television coverage. And although the Scottish Football Association’s board has seven men at the helm, things are changing at club level – especially in Edinburgh.

As of next season – no matter which division they may be in – both Hearts and Hibs will have a woman at the centre spot. Leeann Dempster will be chief executive of the Easter Road club, while at Tynecastle Ann Budge will be chair. While their involvement is great for the gender statistics, will having women in the boardroom make the game any more beautiful?

“It sends out a strong message that women can be involved in football at a high level and that they are more than capable of making changes for the better in a male-dominated sport,” says Maureen McGonigle, a former executive of Scottish Women’s Football, but now the founder of the charity Scottish Women in Sport.

“Leeann Dempster has more than proven herself at Motherwell and Ann Budge is a lifelong fan of the game and is prepared to put her money where her heart is. I think it’s great.”

She adds: “I think Leeann will take her own successful style and way of doing things with her to Hibs, in particular getting the community more involved with the club. At Motherwell she didn’t just focus on results, but on the club as a whole and what it means to its community – that strengthens the club and going forward, strengthens the team.

“While it’s difficult to know what Ann Budge will do, she’s obviously an incredibly capable businesswoman. They are both strong women and have probably had to work much harder than their male counterparts to get where they are. It’s an exciting time.”

Ian Murray MP, chairman of the Foundation of Hearts, also believes that gender could have an impact. “Ann will make a significant difference to Hearts as the first female chair of a Scottish club. Her acumen, experience and good nature will bring a step change from the testosterone-fuelled former owners.

“Hearts will benefit hugely from having a formidable and experienced woman at the helm and in the boardroom and the more the merrier in my view. I think the influence of Ann and Leeann Dempster at Hibs will have a transformative effect.”

Perhaps even the old enmity between the clubs will change – at least off the field. For instance earlier this season Dempster ensured that Motherwell donated £1 for every away supporter who attended a match between them and Hearts at Fir Park to the Foundation of Hearts, the fans’ group which was then bidding to take control of the Edinburgh club.

At the time she said: “We wanted to make this donation because as a club we are all too aware of the difficulties experienced during an insolvency event. We are sympathetic to the aims and objectives of the Foundation of Hearts and we hope this small gesture will help them on their way towards their ultimate goal.”

When Dempster took charge at Motherwell six years ago there were the expected grumbles – how could a woman, whose background was mainly in advertising, run a football club? According to Stevie Kirk, a Motherwell player for nine years before working behind the scenes at the club, the moaners were soon silenced.

“Let’s be honest, there were eyebrows raised in some quarters. Whether we like it or not, there are some sexist people about, and they looked at a female taking control and it might not have sat easy with them,” he has said.

“But she never let that affect her. It might not have been easy but it says all that needs to be said about her character. It didn’t take her long to convince everyone, even narrow-minded doubters, because she did a great job.

“Leeann is very charismatic. She gets on great with the football guys, she is good at dealing with the press and within the SPFL. She knows how to handle players’ contracts and agents. She runs a very tight ship. People can say what they like but it’s a tough job.

“Even the best chief executive can’t win you games on the pitch but poor ones can do a lot of damage. Motherwell have been run well in recent years – and that has been down to Leeann.”

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the benefits of women in boardrooms – studies show that companies with greater female representation perform better than those without. Alex Salmond has also said that the government is seeking powers to tackle the under-representation of women on public sector boards, and quotas is one possible answer.

Sport, and football in particular, is no different. The SFA has a board of seven male members, while it was only recently that the SRU appointed its first female board member.

Budge, who made an estimated £40m from selling her IT firm and has funded a £2.5m rescue package to save Hearts from liquidation, knows all too well how difficult it can be for women to climb the corporate ladder – especially if they have family.

She grew up in West Pilton, the daughter of a Leith docker, who had very “traditional views” about a woman’s place. Referring to her going to university to study psychology, she has said: “My father was from a strong working-class background and came from an age where it was believed education was wasted on women.

“He used to say things like, ‘If she was a boy I could understand it’. He would, from time to time, make it clear that he thought I was being slightly disloyal to the working-class background.”

But it was that degree which she has said helped her get on – as she believes that being able to work well with people is “90 per cent of business”.

Her parents helped out in caring for her daughter Carol after her divorce, as she forged ahead in her career, first with Scottish & Newcastle, and then as one half of IT firm Newell & Budge. And while she has said she hasn’t ever suffered from sexism, despite being in male-dominated industries, she does believe that women can be more successful in business than men because “they work harder... probably think it through more, do their homework, know what they want to achieve”.

She certainly knows what she wants – to get Hearts on an even keel and with the help of supporters – some 8500 have signed up to monthly donations varying from £10 to £500 – have her investment repaid within five years.

Green MSP for the Lothians and former track star Alison Johnstone says women’s greater prominence in football should be welcomed. “The few women who are involved at an executive level have shown that women have a lot to contribute. These women are organised, determined, results-orientated and pragmatic.

“They are clearly skilled at working within a team and getting the best out of people.

“Football strives to be a family-friendly sport and this is essential for a secure future for our clubs. Taking steps to address the under-representation of women on boards is a positive move.”

And McGonigle adds: “It’s obviously just a huge coincidence that both of Edinburgh’s teams are changing this way at the same time, and there are still huge issues in football in terms of women’s representation on the governing body – it would be great if it could lead by example.

“Given the amount of support football receives from public money I feel very strongly there should be a requirement for sports bodies to have a quota of women on their boards.

“It’s no longer acceptable just to have more women as a goal, it needs to be done.”

The women running English football

• Heather Rabbatts broke the ultimate glass ceiling when she became the first female board member of the Football Association. A trained barrister, the former TV executive had previously been executive chair of Millwall FC.

Last October she criticised the make-up of the FA’s commission to improve the national team as being “all-white, all-male” and Rio Ferdinand was subsequently added to it. She admits being female and of mixed race – she’s part Jamaican – is “challenging” in FA board meetings.

• Delia Smith may well be best known for her cookery TV programmes and best-selling books, but her other love is Norwich City FC, of which is joint majority shareholder along with her husband.

Her role at the club has attracted varying media attention, from positive when she “saved” the club from bankruptcy, to negative, when making a controversial on-pitch announcement in 2005. She has fiercely criticised the financial structure of English football as “radically wrong”.

• Karren Brady is a former managing director of Birmingham City and current vice-chairman of West Ham United. Known as “The First Lady of Football” she was just 23 when she was appointed at Birmingham and in 2002 became the first woman to hold such a post in the top flight of English football when the team was promoted. She was appointed to her role at West Ham in 2010.

• Margaret Byrne is the chief executive of Sunderland FC and sits on the FA Council. However, the solicitor joined the club in 2007 as a secretary and through hard work made it to the top.