Ann Budge is well aware that appointing Craig Levein as manager is not one of the most popular decisions she’ll ever make as Hearts owner.
She knew that before she first approached the 52-year-old last week to ask him if he would be willing to step into the breach, and it was reaffirmed to her in a conversation just days before his new role was officially confirmed on Monday.
“I was speaking to someone at the weekend and he has spent his life in market research and he is also a Hearts supporter,” explained Budge. “He said ‘I’ve been doing some research, Ann, and everything will be fine as long as you don’t appoint Craig Levein!’”
The owner, however, maintains maximum faith in the man she appointed as director of football just over three years ago. “We know that there will be a core, for whatever reason, who will never like Craig, but, equally, I was at the firework display on Monday night and there were a number of supporters who came up and shook my hand and said ‘It’s great to have the appointment.’
“They weren’t saying they thought it was the best or worst appointment, just ‘let’s get on with it.’ Craig also said to me when we were talking last week that ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if only I was popular!’ I think it will disappear if we have a few good results.”
Budge has learned during her three-year reign that any decision she makes will never please everyone within Hearts’ support. “I spend a lot of time talking to supporters and it is the unhappy ones who shout loudest,” she said. “There are still an awful lot of Hearts fans who are pleased with the way things have gone. Yes, disappointed with results but there are a lot of sensible supporters out there too. I was around as a fan when Craig was here and went to a number of European trips so I knew at that point he was a really popular and good manager. You weigh that up against the guys who basically say ‘never let him cross this door again’. It’s illogical, which supporter behaviour sometimes is.”
Budge knows that some of the ill-feeling towards Levein stems from his decision to hire Ian Cathro last December. A disastrous run of results under the rookie head coach led to the knives coming out for the director of football. Levein yesterday held his hands up for the decision to appoint Cathro, but Budge is adamant he shouldn’t solely carry the can. “Craig isn’t stupid and when we sat down to have the conversation he said of Ian ‘Yes, well I got that one wrong’,” Budge explained. “But that’s a wee bit unfair because we talked to Ian three years ago when we first set out on this journey and we offered him a job then.
“Yes, it was Craig who came back and said we should talk to him again. But he shouldn’t carry the whole blame. Because of the terrific experience Ian had in the intervening three years, it was a reasonably logical appointment. We obviously all thought it was going to work, but there you go.”
The sacking of Cathro at the start of August left Budge facing one of her most challenging periods at Hearts as she led a four-week search for the team’s new figurehead. After several names were linked with the vacancy, the club have been criticised in some quarters for taking so long to eventually appoint someone who was already part of the staff.
“If someone had said to me we should ask Craig at the beginning of the process I would have done it but I don’t think it would have stopped me interviewing other candidates,” she said. “So despite the fact I am being criticised for having taken so long, it’s a big decision and I needed to go through that process and talk to people with other ideas as well.
“Genuinely, the people we interviewed we talked about afterwards as an interview panel, and every single one of them had a lot to offer.
“There was also a point where we looked at are we doing the right thing, is it experience? Should we bring Jon Daly back into the mix? And then it was, ‘actually, why don’t we ask Craig?’
“It wasn’t that anyone else failed, it’s just that he really ticked this extra box, which is he’s committed, totally, to Hearts. He wants to succeed and he wants the model we have introduced to succeed.
“I think he realised immediately that he actually was the best solution. I am absolutely determined that we continue to build on the good things that have been done. Bringing in anyone unknown would have brought a little bit of risk to it.”