Hearts fans all around bounced to the Poznan and engaged in their trademark mass scarf twirly celebration. Ann Budge didn’t want to join in.
From her vantage point in the middle of it all, she gazed around Tynecastle Park’s new main stand and soaked it all up. This was how it was meant to be; this was what she had waited more than three years for.
Sunday’s riotous 4-0 win over Celtic brought the new stand properly to life. The club owner allowed herself to enjoy the moment towards the end of a momentous victory which ended Celtic’s 69-game unbeaten run. It was only the sixth game in front of the plush new structure, but it became one of the most memorable in the ground’s 131-year history.
“As the game progressed I did allow myself a moment,” smiled Budge, speaking after chairing the 111th Hearts AGM at Tynecastle. “Until then, I was like every other Hearts supporter, thinking: ‘Oh no. we’re not there yet.’ The twirly and everything else they did, was fantastic. I didn’t do the Poznan, but I did smile when it was happening.
“It’s probably the best I have seen in all my years, certainly since I took over. The atmosphere was fantastic – and to see so many smiling faces. Gosh, you don’t always get those but they were absolutely having a ball and I thought that was terrific.”
Hearts were 2-0 ahead at half-time when a power cut hit the new stand. “I was standing talking to the Celtic directors and everything went out,” recalled Budge. “I said: ‘I do not believe this, this cannot be happening.’
“There was lots of humour from them, saying: ‘We can’t let our record go!’ It was all good humour. I got a phonecall and then a text saying it was just a fuse, it could be fixed, then I relaxed. That would not have been a good moment to experience.”
The electric performance by Hearts might have been sufficient to power the stand alone. As well as enjoying the celebrations around her, Budge watched manager Craig Levein in the technical area. He remonstrated with officials, screamed at players and celebrated each goal profusely. Just like the Levein of old.
The 53-year-old returned to management in September but remains Hearts’ director of football. Being back in the dugout five years since his last managerial role with Scotland has given him a spark back. “It has. I was watching him on Sunday,” said Budge. “I sent him a wee text, saying: ‘I haven’t seen you quite so animated for a long time’. He’s enjoying it.
“He is definitely more relaxed. He made a comment at the AGM about the difference between being in the dugout and sitting frustrated in the stand. I used to sit just a few seats away from him and, believe me, there were many, many times when he was hugely frustrated. I used to see that on a Saturday at the game. Our conversations are different now. He is much more relaxed with the way things are at the minute.”
Six games without defeat, and nine teenagers playing in the first team so far this season, mean Budge is enjoying Levein’s influence, too. “I feel as if there is a real steady pair of hands there. The fact that he is so totally committed to youth makes a difference.
“If someone else had come along and said to me, as Craig did on Friday, ‘Well, we’re going to play Harry [Cochrane, aged 16]. And Ant [McDonald, also 16] is going to be there,’ I would probably have been asking: ‘Erm, are you sure?’ Because it’s Craig, and because he knows these guys, it’s reassuring. He’s watched these boys develop – and he’s been talking about them forever. So, if he thinks they can cope, that’s good enough.
“He’s not careless. He wouldn’t put them in unless he was sure. He went through a bit of wondering if it was going to be fair on the guys, putting them into that kind of game. I know that he thinks about all of these things. If he thought they couldn’t deal with it, for whatever reason, he wouldn’t have done it.”
Levein’s unexpected step from the boardroom back into frontline management prompted questions over Hearts’ coaching model. When appointed director of football by Budge in 2014, he stated the club would promote young coaches from within when they needed a new manager.
However, Ian Cathro was lured from Newcastle United to replace Robbie Neilson 12 months ago, and Levein then took charge after Cathro was sacked. The internal coaching conveyor belt has stalled slightly but Budge made it clear that is still Hearts’ ideal blueprint for the future.
“Yes, that’s still there. We are still committed to developing players and developing young coaches,” she said. “The coaching team we have there, Jon [Daly] and Liam [Fox] and Austin [MacPhee] and so on, they all know exactly how they fit in and they are all learning from each other.
“So I really think that, in period of time, we’re going to have a batch of coaches. The trouble is, they’re all going to be saying: ‘Right, I’m ready for my next challenge.’
“We didn’t feel any of the young guys were ready to take that step [to replace Cathro]. Two years from now? Who knows? Whatever happens with Craig, if we need a new head coach, I would love it to be one of the ones that we have been developing so that we can demonstrate the model.”
Would Levein stay and revert to his director of football position in that instance? “Yes, he’s happy here,” smiled Budge.
Both owner and manager certainly looked content during yesterday’s AGM, which lasted one hour and 45 minutes. Budge spoke about non-footballing matters and revealed the cost of the new main stand would reach £15 million – £3m more than originally estimated. Levein dealt with on-the-field issues. He insisted recruitment must improve and then faced an intriguing question from the floor.
“When are we going to start standing up to Hibs in derby games?” queried a shareholder. “For the last two years, we’ve been bullied. I’ve never seen this. It’s got to change. You’re just back in the dugout but next week we could be sitting here bullied again at home. We’ve got to change that mentality as a club. We seem to have gone a bit soft against them. I hate watching what they’ve been doing in the last few derbies.”
Levein stood up. “I’m kind of feeling that,” he said, to much chortling. “Listen, nobody has sat in that stand feeling sick more than me. We’ve been poor in derby matches in the last couple of seasons and it’s completely alien to me. I spent my whole career here with it being the other way round. We will be ready for the next one. I can’t guarantee we’ll win but we won’t be bullied, that’s for sure.”