Changing the guard at Hearts as Andrew McKinlay takes centre stage from Ann Budge before Foundation of Hearts handover

A phased changing of the guard is underway at Tynecastle Park as Hearts prepare for fan ownership.

Wednesday, 26th May 2021, 12:00 pm
Hearts chief executive Andrew McKinlay has taken on many of owner Ann Budge's daily responsibilities.

Ann Budge has been owner, chair of the board and daily figurehead there since levering the Edinburgh club out of administration in May 2014. She is now taking a step back to focus on transferring her 75.1 per cent shareholding to the supporter-led group Foundation of Hearts.

That should finally happen later this summer after a Covid-enforced delay. The Foundation's membership exceeds 8,000 fans who help fund their club to the tune of £1.5million per year.

Andrew McKinlay the chief executive officer appointed by Budge last year, has assumed full charge of day-to-day operations at Tynecastle. Decidedly quiet since arriving in Gorgie, he is now expected to show a more vocal side when it comes to club business.

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Last week’s statement on Hearts’ official website, all 3,383 words of it, may well be the last posted by 73-year-old Budge. She has become known for lengthy and conversational communications over the last seven years so McKinlay has much to live up to in that regard.

The businesswoman will remain in her role as chairwoman and oversee the transition to FoH. However, her daily responsibilities are greatly reduced to allow her a better work/life balance.

McKinlay is ready to take centre stage after ten months in the background. If there are player contracts needing signed off, new projects to commission or, heaven forbid, rammies with the footballing authorities, they now come under his remit.

Beginning of a new era

That will continue even after the Foundation become majority shareholders. The fact Hearts are to be “fan-owned but not fan-run” has been well-documented.

Budge detailed last week how McKinlay has “picked up the challenges brilliantly and is now fully in charge of running all aspects of the club on a day-to-day basis”. With the multi-millionaire benefactor James Anderson joining the Hearts board on July 1, it is the beginning of a new era at the top level.

Like everything else Budge has done at Hearts, this is no hasty decision. Months of planning have gone into gradually delegating her wide range of responsibilities. The aim is to make the change as seamless as possible.

Robbie Neilson, the Hearts first-team manager, was told of Budge’s long-term intentions a year ago. “It's been planned for a while. When I came back to Hearts, I spoke to Ann and she said that, over the course of the year, she would take more of a step back from the day-to-day running of the club,” he explained to the Evening News today.

“She was intending to bring in a CEO and since then Andrew has come in. I get on really well with him. I report into Joe Savage [sporting director] and then to Andrew and obviously Ann is at the top of that.

“As far as I know, this is the restructuring to get ready for the handover. From a football perspective, our department just runs the same way it always has. It's pretty smooth.”

Neilson is already well-acquainted with his new boss. “Andrew has been good to deal with,” he added. “I have a lot of contact with him because we have meetings every Wednesday. He is involved in club meetings as well. He's got good experience for the role.”

That comes from more than six years working in prominent roles at the Scottish Football Association, plus a further two as chief executive of Scottish Golf. “He's been at the SFA and then Scottish Golf for a number of years so he has that know-how,” said Neilson.

“He's been great for myself since he came to Hearts so I've enjoyed working with him. Everything at the club is obviously heavily focused on the football department. You need as much support as you can and we've definitely got that.”

McKinlay led a number of high-profile projects during his time at Hampden Park. He helped establish a proper football pyramid in Scotland back in 2014, Kelty Hearts being the most recent beneficiaries of that structure after winning promotion from the Lowland League to League Two of the SPFL on Sunday.

Civil and calm approach

McKinlay was also involved in successfully defending legal action from Mike Ashley, starting the SFA investigation into historic child abuse allegations, plus dealing with the fallout from Rangers’ liquidation.

He isn’t the type to accept being ordered around by other clubs or organisations, although he prefers the civil and calm approach rather than bawling and shouting. Those who know him have described him as a “competent and professional” operator who favours stable and sensible governance.

Crucially for Hearts, he carries that knowledge of the SFA, their corridors of power, which doors to open and which ones to avoid. He has personal relationships with people at all levels of Hampden Park, including those at the SPFL.

Hearts’ own relations with Scottish football’s governing bodies came under intense strain last summer when they took the SPFL to Edinburgh’s Court of Session attempting to overturn relegations imposed as a result of the Covid pandemic.

The litigation was unsuccessful after the matter was referred to the SFA to convene an independent arbitration panel. It was eventually decreed that Hearts, along with Partick Thistle and Stranraer, should accept the fate dealt them.

McKinlay arrived at Tynecastle the following month hoping for a fresh start. His interpersonal skills and character give Hearts a respected voice among the powers that be.

“Andrew has been in there [SFA] for a number of years and he knows a lot of people. It definitely helps. Any help we can get when dealing with the SFA is much appreciated,” said Neilson.

Budge will be grateful for the comfort and breathing space to concentrate on other issues as Hearts move towards becoming Britain’s biggest fan-owned club.

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