Ambitious owner Ann Budge wants resurgent Hearts back in European competition at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Tynecastle side are in a solid position on the pitch, nine points clear at the top of the Championship, while the club’s latest accounts, released this week ahead of yesterday’s AGM, have shown the club is on a firm financial footing.
Having travelled to watch Hearts on foreign soil in the past, Budge, below, believes a return to the continental scene must be high on the agenda. “In terms of planning ahead and our aspirations, we are quite bullish although realistic at the same time,” she said. “Personally, I see no reason why we shouldn’t be striving in the next couple of seasons to get back into Europe because that’s where we belong.”
The club’s directors revealed that being out of the top flight is resulting in lost revenue of £1 million per year. “It’s a big hole to fill, so we really do need to get to the Premiership as soon as possible,” said Budge.
The owner was quizzed on a range of matters at the AGM, with the future of Tynecastle Stadium high on the agenda after she hinted a few weeks ago that moving to a new ground could become a possibility. “We recognise that [the stadium] is a pressing problem,” she said. “It’s a medium-term rather than a short-term issue though.
“We have an investigative team to look into it and that project will be kicking off in the early part of 2015. There will be a number of different options and it will depend on what we find as to how quickly we may or may not move. It’s at the forefront of our mind in terms of being something we need to plan for but I’m not in a position to say it will be 2016 or 2017.”
The club had budgeted for 8000 season-ticket sales in the summer, but more than 10,000 were sold and Hearts’ home matches are averaging more than 16,000. Largely due to ticket sales, the club is in rude health. “Our cash flow is very strong so that gives us a great deal of comfort,” said Budge. “We have no immediate worries in terms of financial stability.”
One slight bone of contention for Budge has been the assumption from some fans that, because the club is doing well financially, it shouldn’t need the £1.4m per year which filters in from fans’ pledges through the Foundation of Hearts. She said: “It needs to be understood that the whole principle behind FoH and the supporters eventually owning the club is that, over a long period of time, they will have to fund major projects and major expansion. Even if we don’t need £1.4m this year to break even, assuming all continues to go well with FoH, we will still get that £1.4m to reinvest in the club depending on what we need at the time. Included in that we will be building a financial buffer for the future.
“It’s not necessarily, a case of ‘we only need £1m, so just give us £1m’. If we want to build the club and invest for the future – that may include building a new stand at some point – we need that steady income stream from the people who are subsequently going to be owning the club. I can’t explain specifically how the £1.4m per year from FoH is spent because it is just a source of income to the club, the same as season-ticket money, hospitality etc, that we spend on whatever we need to do.”
Similarly, Budge was keen to stress that the £1.4m contributed per year cannot be expected to go towards the £2.5m plus the interest that it will eventually cost the Foundation to take control of the club from her. “The other FoH contributions – the initial £1m, the £1.4m this year, the £1.4m next year and so on – are not about buying the club, they are about financially supporting the club that the fans want to run,” she said. “I have seen people adding up and saying the FoH will have paid more than £2.5m by the time the £2.5m to buy the club is due but I need to be clear that the contributions at this stage are not going towards buying the club; that is what they are paying because they want to own the club. If you want to be the owner of the club, there are financial responsibilities.”