Leicester's success strengthens Ann Budge's Hearts ambitions
Leicester City's astonishing Premier League triumph promises to have a galvanising effect on every underdog in football.
The fearless Foxes took on the might of England’s big four – Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal – as well as the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool and blew them out the water. They spent significantly less money than all of these more illustrious rivals, but found a better way of doing things than every one of them and ultimately completed one of the greatest fairytale stories in the history of all sport when their coronation as champions was confirmed just before 10pm on Monday evening.
Hearts are among the many clubs around the globe looking towards the buoyant East Midlands outfit and drawing inspiration. For the past three decades, there has been a glass ceiling preventing anyone other than Celtic or Rangers winning Scotland’s top flight. Hearts have only sporadically threatened to upset the established order since blowing their big chance of the title on the last day of the season 30 years ago, but there is now a growing belief that the revitalised and upwardly-mobile Gorgie club are equipped to break the traditional Old Firm stranglehold over the coming seasons.
Logic now dictates that if Leicester City, relegation fodder for most of last season, can outperform some of the most moneyed clubs in the world with their own much smaller budget to become champions of England, then Hearts, a club with momentum, solid foundations and clear purpose, can similarly overcome a pair of Glasgow clubs who have become significantly diminished in terms of financial clout and overall stature over the past decade.
Certainly Hearts owner Ann Budge, a staunch believer that richer rivals can always be outfoxed, has had her resolve strengthened by the wave-making feat of Leicester, a former club of both Craig Levein, Hearts’ director of football, and Robbie Neilson, the head coach.
“It’s amazing what they have done,” said Budge. “I think most of the UK have been rooting for them. It’s such a great achievement and it shows that there should be no glass ceiling whatsoever for clubs like us.
“I genuinely believe it’s not all about having a bottomless pit of money to throw at it. It’s about getting value for money. You recognise that there is a limit to what you can do financially, but you’ve got to get the very best value that you can within these limits. I don’t believe in throwing money at anything – it’s got to be about value.”
Neilson has previously spoken of how Hearts can trump the likes of Rangers and Celtic over the course of a season. In an interview with the Evening News in June 2014, when asked how his team could compete with the Ibrox side in the Championship last season, he said: “They might have lots of experienced players, but we’ve got boys who are young, hungry and athletic and want to do well. We want to work hard and do things a bit differently, and that’s the edge we’re going to have.”
The Hearts players duly embraced a radical new training regime and left Rangers in their wake, aided and abetted by the unearthing of a swashbuckling Swedish striker called Osman Sow, who would go on to net the club more than £1million when sold a few months ago. They followed up their Championship title stroll by cruising to third place in their first campaign back in the Premiership, with Arnaud Djoum leading the charge. Neilson said last month that in order to challenge for the title, Hearts would have to locate more players like the previously unheralded Belgian midfielder. It is this type of thinking that has underpinned Hearts’ revival since emerging from administration two years ago, and owner, director of football and head coach remain firmly on the same page with regard to how they will continue moving the club up the Scottish football standings.
“Robbie is driven and has the same kind of work ethic that I’ve always admired,” said Budge. “He’s calm and I like his style. I’ve made no secret of it, character, temperament and approach is hugely important in any part of business and I think Craig, Robbie, myself and the others get on and think the same way.”
So far, the trio have proved to be a formidable combination as Hearts have returned to the upper echelons of Scottish football at a far more rapid rate than anyone could have predicted when they dropped out of the Premiership two years ago next week. Budge admits the club is well ahead of where she envisaged when she first took office on May 12, 2014. Certainly title talk wasn’t expected on the horizon at this early stage of the rebuild.
“I remember standing in here [the Gorgie Suite] at the end of last season and someone said, ‘will it be European football next season?’ I said, ‘come on, hang on a minute – give us a chance!’ So no, I didn’t expect to be doing as well as we are and challenging like we did. Just to be up there challenging is fantastic.
“I’m pretty happy with the way things have gone. On the field we’ve done well and off the field we’ve ticked a lot of boxes. We’re in charge of our own destiny now, in terms of things like taking the club shop back in house. A lot of things are falling into place. In terms of the business plan and financial expectations, we’re well ahead of schedule.”
Although Hearts are quietly confident of being able to challenge for the Premiership title next season, Budge admits the priority is to ensure that there is no regression and that this season doesn’t prove to be a flash in the pan.
“Clearly things are going to change next season [with Rangers back in the top flight] so the key for me now is consistency because I think the biggest risk to a lot of clubs is that they have one good season and then for whatever reason they fall away,” she said. “I don’t want us to be a yo-yo club. Consistency is my watch word. If we were to finish third again next season, I’d be delighted.”