Exclusive: The inside story on Hearts' rebuild 10 years to the day since administration ended

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The last decade has witnessed a total transformation at Tynecastle Park

Strolling along Gorgie Road and turning into McLeod Street brought a familiar sight for decades in Edinburgh. An outdated adult education centre obscured the front of Tynecastle Park’s dilapidated main stand. To the left was the old police building which became Heart of Midlothian’s club offices. It was an untidy look greeting visitors to one of Scotland’s largest sporting institutions; an institution left by negligent Russian owners to lapse into administration in 2013. It emerged as a burnt-out shell exactly 10 years ago.

Today marks a decade on from that moment when Edinburgh’s Court of Session finally stamped the paperwork to confirm Hearts would continue beating. On 11 June, 2014, the darkest period in the club’s history was officially brought to an end as they exited administration. They survived the financial collapse through sheer defiance of fans who had seen Rangers liquidated two years previously and were determined their club would not suffer the same fate. Ann Budge, still chairwoman at Tynecastle today, was pivotal to the process.

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Walk that same route along Gorgie Road and into McLeod Street now and your eyes feast on an entirely different landscape. Tynecastle’s new glass-fronted main stand cost more than £20m. It incorporates a boutique hotel, an award-winning restaurant, a fans’ bar and a club shop, not forgetting the museum and memorial garden also on site. It is literally the result of 10 years’ endeavour. If anything represents the visual transformation of Heart of Midlothian, it is that view standing outside on Foundation Plaza.

Foundation of Hearts, the fan-led organisation, now own the club on behalf of supporters after Budge passed her majority shareholding to them in August 2021. Hearts remain the largest fan-owned club in Britain with more than 8,500 people subscribing to FoH. They were relegated in 2014 following a 15-point deduction that season for entering administration, but returned to the Premiership and qualified for European competition. A controversial demotion in 2020 interrupted progress during the Covid 19 pandemic, but since then they have regained top-flight status and qualified for Europe three times in succession. Later this year, they will play in the league phase of their the Europa League or Conference League for the second time in three seasons.

Every step of this remarkable recovery process has been overseen by Budge, who at 76 is equally remarkable as an individual. She invested an initial £2.5m to gain control and admits to a few mistakes along the way. However, those are vastly outweighed by the sensible management and business decisions which have created the most stable financial health of Hearts’ 150-year existence. It is fitting that the club are celebrating their sesquicentennial this year. The entire operation and structure at Tynecastle is totally unrecognisable to the one Budge officially gained control of 10 years ago today.

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“It is, and you kind of forget about that on a day-to-day basis,” she says, recalling the last decade for the benefit of the Edinburgh News. “Every so often, someone will make a remark about what a fantastic stadium this is. You realise we have done a lot. I said initially I’d be here for three years. During that time, I wanted to make sure there was a firm plan for solving the problem of the 100-year-old stand. I thought I’d sort things out financially and organisationally and get a feasibility study to replace the old stand. I quickly realised I didn’t have three years to think about it. We needed it urgently if we wanted to achieve anything. So that changed from me staying for three years to much longer.”

She encountered multiple hurdles and problems long before then, though. Simply obtaining the majority shareholding in Hearts from bankrupt Lithuanian companies was a taxing process. A few weeks before administration ended, Budge and her associates huddled in an office in Edinburgh’s Rutland Square with the club’s future literally in their hands.

“I had to transfer the money to a Lithuanian bank and they wanted it in their account before they would send over any paperwork to be signed,” she explains. “We were all in the lawyer’s office and nothing was happening - except the fact that the money had come out of my account. There was a deadline and still nothing. There was a whole group of us in the room and we were like: ‘Back to the drawing board. It’s not going to happen today.’

“We were actually heading for the door, the champagne was on ice in the corner, and then somebody shouted: ‘Oooh, it’s through. It’s through. We’ve got it.’ Everybody about turned and went back. We checked the paperwork, they had the funds, then there was half an hour of congratulations and celebrations. I remember getting into a taxi going round Rutland Square afterwards and thinking: ‘Well, I’ve done it now. I wonder what’s going to come next?’

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The answer is: One of the biggest challenges of her life. Restructuring broken Hearts after Russian rule was a mammoth operation which has taken a full decade. The Vladimir Romanov era ended catastrophically in 2013 when administrators BDO were called in. Budge is careful not to bad-mouth her predecessor but the inference is clear.

“There was no real management structure here because, under the previous ownership, nobody had any power or authority. No disrespect to anybody, but I felt there was a layer of management which was completely missing. That was one of my first tasks. We had great staff, we had to find great management. I contacted people I knew who had worked for me before and basically brought a management team in. Everybody saw it as a great challenge.

“We had got the club out of administration but we now had to actually see it develop. I did bring in a number of people who knew nothing about running football but knew about running business. That was important to me. I know it’s all about results on the park, I really do. I just felt that by bringing Craig [Levein] and Robbie [Neilson] in, they knew about football. They could tell me what we had to do on the football side of things and I’d sort out the rest.”

Naming Levein director of football and Neilson head coach were Budge’s first major appointments. “I know not everybody will agree with me, but I thought Craig did a fantastic job in his first few years here,” she says. “He helped get the academy moving again and he put his heart and soul into trying to fix problems on that side. One of the biggest mistakes I think I made was when he wanted to go back and be the manager [in 2017]. I said: ‘Craig, if this goes wrong, I don’t just lose a manager but I lose a director of football as well.’ He said: ‘I know, but if it doesn’t work then I’ll have to go anyway. I’d rather be master of my own destiny.’ I should have let him do it for half a season and then said: ‘Thanks for stabilising things, now go back to doing what you were doing.’”

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The Foundation project snowballed to create history. Fans’ monthly cash paid via FoH helps fund Hearts to the tune of £1.6m per year. Budge heard repeated theories that supporters would not continue donating money once administration ended. They proved completely unfounded.

“One of the early things I remember saying was: ‘We have to get the pride back in Hearts.’ I thought I could pick up the phone to some old business contacts and tell them we need some sponsorship,” she recalls. “I quickly realised football wasn’t something anybody felt comfortable supporting - and certainly not Hearts, given what had gone before. We needed people who basically would put some money in.

“Don’t forget, FoH money and fans’ funding was going in as operational capital for the first two years to help us pay bills. We didn’t know if it would continue. There were plenty people telling us that, once the club was out of administration, fans would all pull back. I couldn’t generate more from the existing business because it was such a mess. We had to fix that and create new opportunities. We had some success, James Anderson came in and liked what we were doing. He has been immense for the club. FoH did work and that has also been immense.

“We tried to sell the fact we were a community club, we wanted to bring the pride back to Tynecastle and support the community. The other thing I hadn’t realised were the number of volunteers. I used to walk into the old police building with the cells, which were the admin offices. These guys were standing polishing things. The cell door would be open. After a couple of weeks, I stopped and asked what they were doing. ‘Oh, we’re just looking after Hearts’ memorabilia,’ they said. They used to buy their own Brasso or metal polish or whatever it was because there had been so little money. These last 10 years have been such a team effort.”

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The polishers were club historians David Speed, Bill Smith and David Allan, who are still involved at Tynecastle to this day. There were many other volunteers. Budge took great pride in all of them. Her ability to appreciate, engage with and manage people is one of her best assets. She has done many things with her life - building a successful IT business, selling it for a reported £40m-plus, raising a family and becoming a doting grandparent are among the highlights. Taking charge at Hearts was a challenge she definitely wanted, but one totally out of kilter with anything she had done beforehand.

“I’d sold my business, done a buyout, bought companies and done all these things, but I always felt I was in my comfort zone,” says Budge. “I was dealing with businesses I understood and people I knew. This was totally different. It was as big as anything I’d done, not in financial terms but the change it was going to make to my life. I’m much more a chief executive than a chairman because I want to be involved in the detail.

“When I began getting involved at Hearts, I realised how many different supporter groups there were. They all had a different agenda, they all had history, and this one didn’t like that one because of something that happened in 1950 or something. We all used to sit round a table with the original founders of FoH. Initially, there wasn’t any clarity on what they wanted to do other than save the football club. There was a lot of talk with no real structure.

“We widened it out to include all the supporter groups. I used to go to these meetings and think: ‘What am I doing here?’ I was trying to see the wood for the trees. I was there to try and give advice on how to shape a deal and come up with some kind of strategy. I wasn’t there to get involved in any shape or form myself. I’d sit there thinking: ‘This is going nowhere.’

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“I phoned Robert Wilson, who had already been diagnosed with MND and was a Hearts fan. He was originally involved in setting up the SPFL. He was a real strategy guy and I asked him to get involved. I thought if I got him involved, I could stand back. He said he was happy to help but only if I was still involved. He came in and helped, as did Alastair Bruce on the marketing side. Ian Murray got involved as well.”

The list is endless, but Budge is right at the top. After 10 years of restoring Hearts post-administration, she is entitled to a break. When it comes is anyone’s guess. The club continues to grow in stature thanks to the Foundation she got in tow with and the foundations they built together. Take a moment to stop and think about it next time you wander down McLeod Street.

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