The seeds of Hearts’ Championship title win were sown 11 months ago in a brief meeting between the players and Ann Budge.
The new owner strode into Tynecastle and addressed the squad with a promise to manage the club properly after years of financial suicide by her predecessor, Vladimir Romanov. Her words acted as a calming influence and the relief among the players was palpable.
Budge asked them to perform on the park while she re-organised the boardroom and accounts. That was May 12 last year. No-one in the room that day could have predicted the prosperity which would ensue in the months ahead.
Fast forward almost a year and the Hearts players have carried out Budge’s request to a tee. They have recovered from relegation and administration with dignity and purpose and reclaimed a place in Scotland’s Premiership at the first attempt – and in record time.
Callum Paterson recalls that meeting with Budge as the moment the atmosphere changed at Hearts. He spoke to the Evening News to detail the uplifting effect of a few well chosen words from the incoming owner.
“There was a lot of animosity between loads of people in and about the changing room at that time – and between everybody else around the ground. This season is a massive lift for everybody involved with Hearts, especially the fans. As we’ve proved, we’ve gone out and done it for them this season and we want to keep it going and do well next year as well.
“The day it changed was the day Ann Budge came in. The day she walked in, everybody was totally relieved and the pressure was off.
“We got relegated, which always looked like it was going to happen from the start of last season [when Hearts were deducted 15 points for entering administration]. It did happen but we’ve gone and applied ourselves correctly this year and it’s shown to be the right approach for us.
“I remember Ann coming in. She said: ‘I’m here to take over the club and it will be run properly from now on. You don’t worry about what’s happening off the park. You worry about what’s happening on the park and I’ll take care of what’s going on off the park.’
“It’s obviously worked and it’s continuing to work. It’s been a great year for all of us.
“Personally, I’d never once heard from Romanov or even seen him. It was great to see Ann Budge come in and just speak to the boys. Even though it was a quick conversation, it reassured us. We’ve proved our doubters wrong and gone on to win the league.”
There was still the uneasy departures of manager Gary Locke, his assistant Billy Brown and several experienced mainstays like Jamie MacDonald, Ryan Stevenson and Jamie Hamill.
Craig Levein was the new director of football and Robbie Neilson became head coach. The Hearts players sensed a new era was upon them, which gathered momentum much quicker than anyone expected. The bond in the dressing room is now stronger than Paterson can ever recall.
“You could feel the relief lift at that time. It was sad to see players leave and it was different seeing new players coming in,” he explained.
“The chemistry in the team now, the way we’re performing together, the way we have a laugh in the changing room and in training, it’s all really enjoyable. We’re all bonding as friends now, which is a little different from how it’s been at the club in previous seasons.”
That camaraderie was never more evident than on Saturday, when Hearts celebrated their league title win in front of a capacity crowd at Tynecastle after beating Queen of the South. Players tossed kitman Gordon Paterson and Neilson in the air and even interrupted a television interview to douse the head coach in champagne.
“We knew we had won the league last weekend so it was good to celebrate with the fans at Tynecastle,” said Paterson.
“Of course, it wasn’t a great game but we came out 2-0 winners at the end of it and to be honest it could have been more. It’s obviously great to win a title at any time, although it would’ve been brilliant to actually win the title at home on Saturday.”
Paterson does not turn 21 until October but will pocket a league winner’s medal at the end of the campaign. He is approaching the end of his third full season at senior level.
“This is what you play for and this is what players dream of,” he said. “Now we want to go on and do well in the Premiership next year and take Hearts on to bigger and better things in the future.
“We aren’t targeting anything at all because we haven’t even finished this season yet. We just want to push on and do well in the top flight.”
Saturday proved more of a challenge for the young full-back than it might have appeared. He only returned home on Friday night having been in Hungary with the Scotland Under-21 squad.
Paterson played 45 minutes of the 2-1 friendly win in Tatabanya on Thursday afternoon, then found himself playing the full 90 against Queen of the South.
“I’m not going to lie. I was feeling absolutely knackered. I got home at eight o’clock on Friday night so it was into bed and then straight to the game on Saturday morning.
“Hopefully I went out and played how I usually play and did my job. We got another clean sheet for the defenders and the goalie and another two goals at the other end, which was very pleasing.”
His Tynecastle colleagues Jordan McGhee and Jack Hamilton managed 90 minutes for Scotland Under-21s but were not involved against Queen of the South. Sam Nicholson and Billy King were also involved in Hungary but were spared a full game at the weekend.
“I was a little bit surprised I started,” admitted Paterson. “I want to play as much as I can and the gaffer had a quiet word with me to say: ‘Listen, don’t over-exert yourself during the week just in case we do decide to start you.’
“That’s what I did. I played for Scotland Under-21s last Thursday night and then started for Hearts on Saturday. It was a great day to be involved in, though.”