Ann Budge is rebuilding Hearts and minds

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From payday loans to a charity aimed at preventing child poverty. If clear evidence of the change in direction at Hearts is needed, it lies in the last two names to adorn their shirts.

Wonga.com were last commerical sponsor. Next season, Save The Children will fill the void in a three-year deal worth seven figures to the Edinburgh club in total.

Neil Mathers, Save the Children head of Scotland, Ann Budge, and Hearts director of football Craig Levein unveil the partnership. Picture: Cate Gillon

Neil Mathers, Save the Children head of Scotland, Ann Budge, and Hearts director of football Craig Levein unveil the partnership. Picture: Cate Gillon

Owner Ann Budge has used Hearts-supporting business contacts to broker an agreement with a group of anonymous individuals – said to number less than five - who will fund the partnership. Save The Children will appear on Hearts’ home and away jerseys starting next season. Those funding the deal will make payments to the club, the charity and a smaller donation to Big Hearts Community Trust.

The value of the agreement means Hearts have no need to search for any commercial sponsor. It is the latest move by Budge to restore community values at a club which was for so long derided for a lack of personal touch under previous owner Vladimir Romanov. In particular, Wonga’s exploitative approach didn’t sit well with many fans – last year they were banned from using a TV advert that failed to tell consumers of a 5,853 per cent annual interest rate.

This season’s Hearts shirt has no sponsor as it is dedicated to footballers and others who lost their lives in World War I, seven of whom were Tynecastle players. Following Wonga, Save The Children could be viewed as something of an antithesis of the payday loan company.

Budge today explained that the transformation at Tynecastle is beginning to bear fruit in a business sense. The lapse into administration in 2013 hit hard but more and more companies are beginning to return as the club rebuilds itself with changed principles.

“It wasn’t something I thought we could be proud of,” said Budge of Wonga. “That said, I need to make the point that, as I understand, Wonga was a very good business partner for the club. I wasn’t involved at that point but I’m not criticising Wonga. We had the opportunity to renew the [Wonga] contract last year and I took the decision not to. It wasn’t what we wanted to promote and it would go against some of the things we were going to be saying. I’m delighted we now have Save The Children and not Wonga.”

Budge went on to explain the damage Hearts’ financial dealings had caused under the Romanov regime. “In the business world, we had lost a lot of goodwill. A number of businesses didn’t like what was going on at the club and had withdrawn support. We had to work really hard to re-establish relationships with the business community.

“To a certain extent, the same thing was true with supporters. A lot of fans had not bought season tickets or had stopped coming because of what they thought the club was standing for at that time. It was a priority for us to create new values. This partnership with Save The Children sends out exactly the message we want to send out.”

The idea initially came from a couple of Hearts fans who wanted to use their own money to help Budge’s revolution. Fan group Foundation of Hearts are already donating cash monthly after harnessing 8,000 members. “Once again, the supporters are coming to the fore to help us out,” said Budge.

“I was contacted initially by a couple of individuals keen to help they club. They said I should let them know if ever there was anything I needed their financial support for. I mentioned it would be nice if we could have a shirt sponsor that underpinned what the club stood for. They came back with this suggestion and I was bowled over. I thought it was an amazing idea.

“You have to factor in commercial income when planning ahead. This gives everybody associated with the business that degree of certainty for the next three years. It’s the biggest deal we’ve ever done. I’m told it’s on a par with some of the bigger deals done in Scotland in the past.

“We’ve achieved what we wanted in terms of the revenue stream for the club but we’ve done it in a different way. We should always try to think along these lines. Just because that’s the way it’s always been done doesn’t mean we shouldn’t open our minds to something else.”

Towards the end of a season when Hearts have swept everyone aside in the Scottish Championship, and achieved automatic promotion back to the Premiership, the impact of a winning team is not lost on their owner. Budge took control last year as the club emerged from a year-long administration process and has overseen a remarkable rejuvenation in Gorgie. “We all know that, if results hadn’t gone so well this year, things might have been a bit tougher. The success on the field has helped enormously, although I like to think other off-field things have also helped,” she continued.

“Has it been harder than I thought? We have the SFA, the SPFL and all the rules. Sometimes I say: ‘Let’s do this.’ But the answer is that you can’t do that because rule such-and-such says you can’t. Then I think: ‘But that’s not sensible’. Getting change in Scottish football is one of the bigger challenges.”