Beer bottles in pockets, partying through city centre squares, chasing trams and enjoying the camaraderie. Ann Budge recalls tales of following Hearts in Europe like any other fan. Flying to Malta on the official team charter this morning, she knows exactly what this means to supporters.
Budge now sits on the other side of the fence as the club owner, of course. These days, she books and pays for the plane to take players, management and staff to European away ties. The buck stops with her. That doesn’t mean she’s forgotten her escapades travelling as a punter.
She and daughter Carol enjoyed many an away trip together, indulging in the same gaiety as everyone else: plundering local supermarkets for cases of lager, running to catch trams and soaking up the atmosphere in town centres across the continent.
It’s not the behaviour you might associate with a 68-year-old millionaire football club owner. Nonetheless, it’s part of what makes Budge endearing. She shares an affinity with everyone heading to the Mediterranean island to see Hearts play Birkirkara tomorrow. She had an instant bond with those who journeyed to Tallinn last week. Because she was one of them not so long ago.
The Europa League first qualifying round saw Hearts progress past the Estonians of Infonet. Birkirkara provide a greater test in round two. It’s another journey and another step forward in Budge’s rebuilding of the Edinburgh club. It’s also another jaunt for fans riding the crest of a wave which began when Budge assumed control of Hearts in June 2014.
That day, she went from ordinary fan – or occasional Euro-trekker – to club figurehead. The memories and highlights of those games abroad will always be there, and trips like today’s bring them to the fore again. “I hesitate to say what the highlight was because I want to say all of them. All of the experiences were fantastic,” she recalls.
“I used to go to these games with my daughter, it was just the two of us in most cases. My son-in-law joined us for one. She just loves being part of a supporters’ group so I remember standing in lots of squares drinking beer, going into supermarkets to buy cans of beer.
“She reminded me the other day, I think it must have been in Basel, running to catch a tram with a couple of bottles in each pocket. That’s something all supporters just do, really. I always managed to stay sober because I was looking after my daughter – but she didn’t!”
That match in Switzerland in 2004 is famous for the winning goal in Hearts’ 2-1 victory. It was scored by the man Budge appointed head coach of Hearts two years ago, Robbie Neilson. “I almost said when I was asked about my highlight how that might have been it,” she smiles. “Have I mentioned it to him? I have actually. Only in the sense of ‘I remember seeing you score that goal that night’.
“Everybody knows I rate him very highly and we’ve got a really good relationship. But the fact he was a Hearts player and I have seen him in these situations does add that little bit of magic. He was also my daughter’s favourite player for an awful long time.”
The joys of following Hearts in European competition for many years entitles Budge to feel a connection with supporters soaking up the sun in Malta. “Absolutely,” she says. “When we came into the hotel in Tallinn last week within two or three minutes I was asked for a selfie by a guy who had flown over from Alicante. It had taken him almost 24 hours to get there and you think ‘yeah, that’s what it’s really about’.
“Clearly the logistics of these trips add a few more grey hairs, but it’s fantastic, particularly so for the supporters. I met a few of them last week in Tallinn and they’re really up for it. Last week we all wanted to get to the next round and, yes, we’ll have the same logistical problems again this week. But we were desperately keen to have that problem.”
The aim was always to return Hearts to the European arena when they emerged groggily from administration two years ago. Never did anyone imagine it would happen at breakneck speed. “I didn’t believe for a minute it would be this quick,” says Budge. “I remember being asked at the end the season before last whether it would be Europe next year. I just laughed and said ‘give us a chance’.
“I’ve been on these trips before and I know how much they mean to people. It’s where you want to be, it’s where all clubs really want to be. It just adds a bit of excitement, something extra for the players and staff too. There was a lot of discussion about what we wanted – did we want a big club in England, because clearly there’s an attraction to that as well? But I don’t think you can beat the chance of going and playing in a different European country.”
Should Hearts overcome Birkirkara, there is the prospect of facing a bigger name in the third qualifying round. The Edinburgh club were seeded for rounds one and two but wouldn’t enjoy the same luxury thereafter.
The priority remains the domestic environment. Trying to build on last season’s third-place finish will be difficult as Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers all jostle for positions with Hearts near the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership.
“People keep saying to me we’ve overachieved and created a rod for our own backs,” states Budge. “I don’t think we’ve overachieved but it would be a very different type of season. In the first year, it was very clear what we needed to do. Second year it was top-six.
“Next year, to me, we have to – I don’t want to use the word consolidate because that always sounds a bit negative – but consistency is hugely important. So, it’s being consistently good and getting consistently better. How that translates given a different set of competition remains to be seen.
League fixtures don’t start until next month, so Budge will enjoy Europe while it lasts. Although perhaps not in the way she used to.