Ann Budge: Hearts success beyond my wildest dreams

Ann Budge has enjoyed this season at Hearts. Pic: Neil Hanna
Ann Budge has enjoyed this season at Hearts. Pic: Neil Hanna
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Ann Budge admits she has been totally consumed by the task of reviving Hearts.

She knew it would be a tough gig when she first agreed to become chairwoman, but the workload and the level of media focus on her since she officially took office at Tynecastle last May has taken her by surprise. Not that she’s complaining. With a champagne-soaked Hearts shirt signed by all the players reminding her of the wild celebrations the day – and night – the team secured the Championship title last month, sacrificing her spare time and, to a large extent, her privacy has been well worth it. As the head figure of a happy and upwardly-mobile club, Budge is very much a lady of contentment.

“It’s been an amazing year – nobody in their wildest dreams could have envisaged we would be so successful in our first year,” she told the Evening News. “If I’m honest, I can’t say I expected to win the league. I expected us to be challenging and I hoped we could win it, but, well, we did it quick-style, didn’t we? This was always going to be special because we were coming from such a low point. But, for everything to go so positively, of course I’ve enjoyed it.

“It’s been very hard work, though. I didn’t really understand exactly how much was involved in running a football club, but it’s been fantastic. This has been my main focus. I’ve been at Tynecastle more or less every day and then at weekends I’m at the games and any other supporters events. I feel I’m looking after the club on behalf of the supporters so I owe it to them to go to a lot of their events. It’s very demanding in terms of time but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Budge made her millions in IT, but she has found running one of the biggest football clubs in Scotland to be an entirely different ball game.

“It’s completely different to my other business interests,” she said. “I don’t do very much else at the moment [business-wise]. I still have one or two other interests where I sit on a board or whatever, but there’s nothing to compare with a football club. It’s still a relatively small business in financial terms, but the impact it has on the thousands of supporters makes it entirely different to dealing with what you might call a normal business. It’s been more than a full-time job for me and that’s the case for everyone at the club.”

Until last year, Budge hadn’t experienced life in the spotlight. She has been cast as a heroine in the eyes of a Hearts support forever grateful to her for saving their club, while she has also had to get used to seeing herself pictured in newspapers and on television. The fact that much of the publicity has been positive has helped smooth the transition from relatively unknown Edinburgh businesswoman to local celebrity.

“Being in the spotlight all the time has probably been the most surprising thing,” she said. “In my previous business life, I’ve always tried to avoid too much media coverage, so I’ve found the extent of the interest quite surprising. I didn’t expect it. I was warned not to get involved by people saying ‘you’ll not have any privacy left’ and I’m thinking ‘no, no, no, that can’t be right’. They were right.

“I tend not to go on to social media. I see newspapers because the club has to monitor what’s going on in the press. I try not to worry about it too much. If I give an interview, I hope it will be accurately reported and, in fairness, I think it has been so far. Sometimes the headlines are a little bit sensationalist, but I guess that’s how you sell newspapers.

“It’s difficult because I’ve never lived in a goldfish bowl before. I think in the early days my family found it hard to deal with. They were a bit worried about how it was going to come over. Was it going to be negativity? However, the fact we’ve done so well has made it much better. Because we’ve had such a good year, the media focus hasn’t been overly difficult. Not expected, not necessarily wanted, but, given what we’ve achieved here, it’s all really been positive.”

Indeed, Budge was widely lauded last week for taking on the Scottish Professional Football League over their decision to move Hearts’ final Championship game of the season against Rangers to a Sunday at just over two weeks notice.

“I don’t seek that kind of headline, but when something is, in my opinion, wrong or not sensible, I feel it’s my responsibility to look after the interests of the club and to point out where I think things could be done better,” she said. “It’s not deliberate [to cause a row], but if I feel I have to say something, then I’ll say it. I’ve promised supporters that I’ll keep them informed on an ongoing basis, so when something like last week happens I need to tell them what’s going on. That then gets picked up by the media and causes a bit of a stramash.

“I was delighted that common sense won the day in the end and we got the result we wanted, but the objective for everyone should be to try and make sure that doesn’t happen and that we have conversations before decisions are made.

“I sent in a letter of complaint, as I said I would. It was just outlining what I thought went wrong and saying that I’d be more than happy to discuss – in a positive way – how we could avoid these things happening again. I made it clear that it’s not to do with individuals – it’s just to do with the processes and procedures and how we can improve the communication and consultation etc. I very much consider it to be a matter of how the clubs relate and interface with the SFA and the SPFL – not about personalities.”

Budge was backed by Hibs chief executive Leeann Dempster in last week’s fixture row and the Hearts chair explained that they share a good relationship which can be of benefit to both Edinburgh clubs. “I knew Leeann before I took over at Hearts because I went to speak to two or three other clubs about what it’s like running a football club,” she explained. “Leeann was at Motherwell at the time and she was very open and helpful. Since she’s moved to Hibs, we’ve met at games and at meetings at Hampden and we’ve had a couple of meetings outside of that where we’ve shared ideas.

“I believe, and I think Leeann buys into it, that if we can put in place any kind of commercial arrangement that benefits Hearts, then why shouldn’t the same sort of arrangement be put in place for Hibs, and vice-versa. We both face the same sets of challenges, but, although there will always be competition and neither of us would ever do anything that would be detrimental to our respective clubs, if we can work together to get something that will benefit all of the football supporters in Edinburgh, then we’ll look to do that.”

So far Hearts haven’t needed much help from anyone. Remarkably for a team that just emerged from administration a year ago, they had the league tied up by the end of March. On the night they officially won it, Sunday, March 22, Budge was pictured in a signed Hearts top in an Edinburgh nightspot as she partied with players and staff. “It was lovely wearing the strip out the night we won the league,” she said. “I wore it all night. It got a bit wet. When they first doused me in champagne, I had a perfectly respectable sweater on, but I got absolutely soaked. The only thing I was able to change into was the top that they gave me. I’ll keep it forever. I’ve got that and a couple of other pieces of memorabilia that I’m going to get framed.”

Budge, 67, has enjoyed getting to know the Hearts players and explained that she has been keen to foster a camaraderie throughout the club. “Before I was just a fan watching them from the sidelines, but it’s slightly different now because I know them and see them regularly,” she said. “It’s really nice because I’m beginning to get to know them as individuals rather than just seeing them as football heroes. Without exception, they’re a lovely group of guys.

“One of the things I wanted to do when I first took over was to make sure that the players and the staff down at Tynecastle got to know each other better. I asked if they would train at Tynecastle one day a week, so they do that on a Friday and then we all have lunch together. That gives everybody the chance to chat, which is good. There was a big divide before, which I picked up on even before I took over.”

Budge has missed only two games this season, when she was on holiday in Mauritius last November, but she has become so immersed in her club that she made sure she watched them on Hearts TV. “If I was just the owner and not playing a day-to-day role I might be able to switch off, but because of the roles I play at the club I don’t ever switch off,” she said. “My family are all big football supporters so they don’t mind me being so immersed in it. Football is all we talk about. Sometimes we find ourselves saying ‘surely we’ve got something else to talk about.’”

• Budge hails impact of Levein and Neilson

Ann Budge has paid tribute to Craig Levein and Robbie Neilson for the manner in which they have spearheaded Hearts’ football department.

Budge’s first act on becoming chairwoman was to appoint former Scotland manager Levein as director of football. “My relationship with Craig has been hugely important,” she said. “Clearly on the football side, I couldn’t have done anything we’ve done without Craig’s advice and guidance. We get on very well, we both trust each other and we talk continuously. We’re on the phone a lot, he’s down at Tynecastle several times a week and I try to get along to Riccarton when I can.”

Levein, in turn, selected Neilson as head coach. “Robbie’s done a fantastic job,” said Budge. “His work ethic is second to none. He approaches the game in such an intelligent manner. I never cease to be impressed with him. He’s a terrific influence on the whole football department. He’s a really genuine person who wants the best for the club.”