Hearts owner Ann Budge today emerged in full support of manager Craig Levein whilst conceding results must improve as the new Ladbrokes Premiership season begins.
Budge believes her club are about to reap the benefits after five years of groundwork since emerging from administration. In an exclusive Evening News interview, she backed Levein’s work as director of football and manager following criticism from some fans.
A section of supporters vented their discontent at Budge, Levein and certain players during last weekend’s 1-1 Betfred Cup draw at East Fife – Hearts’ last competitive game before Sunday’s opening league game at Aberdeen. Budge admitted two successive sixth-place Premiership finishes have been disappointing and that board members have questioned the management on results.
However, she insisted the club are completely behind Levein and she feels there is more work for both of them to do at Tynecastle Park. “I do support him,” explained the Edinburgh businesswoman.
“This is an unfinished job for Craig. He started something similar at Dundee United years ago and didn’t get to finish it. He absolutely believes we are on the cusp of seeing some of these rewards. I still believe that, too.
“I initially asked Craig to join us on the basis that we’d work together over the long term to improve the club. I think we’ve done that. He knows better than anybody that, if the results are bad, he is going to get a lot of stick. Don’t misunderstand me, he does get quite a grilling at times.
“I see him on a one-to-one basis and I’ll question things: ‘Are you serious? Is this really what we’re doing?’ But while I question it, he is always able to explain the bigger picture. It’s about who has been training best. Maybe someone has something going on that means it wouldn’t be right to play him. It’s bigger things that the support don’t know. There are reasons why he plays who he plays in each game. I don’t always understand them but I always ask for them to be explained.
“There are a couple of guys on the board who give him quite a tough time about budgets, budgets versus results, the number of players we brought in last year. It’s not blind acceptance. It’s a genuine belief that he actually does know what he’s doing and that we are going in the right direction. I hope we’re proved right.”
Asked if she accepted results needed to improve, Budge replied: “Yes. I accept that wholeheartedly. Last season started brilliantly then we fell off a cliff, but we still managed to do well in both cups. Our financial figures from last year are going to look really good. We finished sixth instead of fourth, which is what I always budget for. What we did in the cups more than made up for the lost prize money in financial terms.
“It wasn’t great and I certainly don’t want to finish sixth. We’ve done it twice now. Ultimately, we did have success. We had the beginning of the season, good success in the cups and our financial results are going to be good.
“With my business head on, I’m happy. With my supporter’s head on, I don’t want to finish where we finished. When I started, I set out to make sure Hearts returned to being a top-six club with the aspiration of getting into Europe. We have achieved that top-six position consistently, but not as well as we would like.
“I would never say I’m happy to finish sixth but, on balance, it was not a bad year for us in business terms. Is that more important? With my business hat on, I’d say it is. I’m very aware a lot of that comes from supporters’ backing. Even when we’re finishing sixth for two years, we still have 13,000 season ticket holders, we still have hospitality filled, people buying things in the shop. If that changes and we start having issues in business, then I would be unhappy.
“I’m also really keen that the supporters don’t think we have not invested in the football team. We have spent over £4million on the youth academy in my time here. I’ve only said a definite ‘no’ to the football department once. If additional resources have been needed for players, I’ve always managed to find them. That’s partly because the business is doing well.
“We have benefactors who have put millions into the club. That’s because they still believe we are doing the right thing. Nobody puts any conditions on that money. We have used that for the football department at times, on the stand at times, etc. We have spent a lot of money but not at the expense of the football.”
Budge insisted she has the character to make difficult decisions when needed. She feels she and Levein complement one another because Levein’s skillset is different to hers. However, she rejected any notion that their relationship is too cosy.
“Craig is a football man. I rely on his football knowledge. He isn’t a businessman. He doesn’t think the same as I do,” said Budge. “I’ve changed departments around in here for good business reasons. Now I’m looking at the football department and reviewing it. My vision is to be the best we can be in everything we do. That’s on the field but also backroom staff, medical department, sports science department. I’m asking if we have the right number of people at the right level and if we are structured properly so there is clarity.
“Sometimes I’ll ask Craig who a particular individual reports to. The answer is always the same: ‘Me, I suppose.’ We are getting bigger so we need some more conventional practices in place to do things professionally.
“Am I happy to have a difficult conversation with Craig? I am if I think something isn’t right. Any club has people, like scouts who get paid for going to a match. When you get to a certain level I think you have to be a bit more professional than that. This is what I’m looking at right now. Our costs have grown substantially and I need to make sure that extra cost is being handled appropriately.
“Craig isn’t the most organised when it comes to planning, other than the football. Everything else round about just kind of happens so I need to get that sorted.
“Would I be uncomfortable having a difficult conversation with Craig about Craig? It’s not something I would want to do. If I felt Craig was no longer adding value, then I would have that conversation. He knows that. Do the supporters believe it? Probably not. I have a good relationship with Craig but I have that with everybody. It doesn’t mean I can’t make a tough decision if one needs to be made.”
This season is Budge’s sixth with Hearts but also her last as owner. She will hand her majority shareholding to fan-run Foundation of Hearts next spring but will remain in charge as chief executive.
“I’m excited about it this season. Despite the less-than-wonderful start in the League Cup, we have a mix of young players, guys on longer deals plus new signings. There is a positivity around the place and a genuine belief that we will get it right.
“I don’t want to leave as long as I’m still able to contribute. The supporters will become majority shareholders but I’ve got to ensure the running of the club continues. That’s my biggest challenge this year. It would be the icing on the cake if we have a good year on and off the pitch and achieve what no-one else has – fans as majority owners.”