When Ann Budge failed to win a place on the SPFL board this summer, there were some who will have heaved a sigh of relief. Others were disappointed. In most cases the reason for both was the same; they view the Hearts owner as someone determined to force Scottish football to look itself in the mirror.
As someone who can talk the talk but also walk the walk, she may do so in a pair of nice heels and with a sweet smile on her face, looking, she says, like an old woman, but since assuming control at Hearts she has backed up strong words with strong deeds. Hearts have undergone a period of introspection and that is ongoing, but she believes the whole of Scottish football has to do that if the game is to be rebuilt and the lost or exiled fans welcomed back.
“It’s funny, I have heard so many people saying that football clubs need to be run like a business but at the end of the day, I don’t think it really matters what business you are in if you are not thinking of your customers as individuals and people who have needs. We need to be looking at the people side of things.”
She admits she was disappointed not to win election to the board but she does believe that there is a growing appetite for dispensing with the “aye been” thinking within the corridors of power.
“I think there is a desire for change but the voting system is such that achieving that change isn’t going to happen overnight but there are a number of working groups being set up to see how we can change things for the better. I do think they are serious about it in a way I’m not sure they were in the past, although, obviously, I wasn’t there in the past but that is my impression. Now they are trying to think of other ways and having proper discussions about the big issues that face the majority of clubs.”
From financial problems, crowd numbers, public perceptions of pampered stars and downtrodden fans, to unsavoury singing, disorder, and unacceptable behaviour, to the influence of television, the size of leagues, the quality of the players, and the timing of the season, there are issues aplenty. But distill the majority of it down and it comes back to people and to values, says Budge.
“At the end of the day clubs have got to get fans back through the gates and into the stadia supporting their teams. It is the biggest source of income. So we have to be thinking about what we can do to make things better, we have to listen to supporters. Not to do that is madness, to not work within the community is madness. If you think about where football stadia usually are, in the middle of towns, there is usually a local community that is highly dependant on the club so for the clubs not to be reaching out to these people and asking how we can help them and how they can help us doesn’t make sense to me. It’s madness.”
Under her guidance, the ethos of Hearts has changed, or perhaps simply been rediscovered, with that in mind. It wasn’t so long ago that outsiders, and countless frustrated insiders, were given the impression that Hearts were a club with no concept of community and little consideration for the fans or the club’s reputation. It was a swill of negativity and eventually the team suffered on the park. But Budge has altered things. From simple things like paying the living wage, to swapping loan company Wonga for Save the Children as shirt sponsor, the moves have been positive. The club has taken a more holistic approach in the care of players, educating them in life rather than spoiling them, and reminding them what the club stands for. This week they unveiled the plans for a remembrance garden, paid for by the club and with money bequeathed to them by a lifelong fan. The club, the people who run it, the players and the fans are now held to higher standards and that is the way Budge wants it. She wants the same for Scottish football as a whole.
That is why she has been willing to take on heavyweights like Rangers, why she has spoken out against the game’s organisers where she perceives a lack of parity or common sense, and why she has taken a firm stance on the potentially explosive issues of sectarianism and social misconduct, condemning unsavoury sections of the Celtic support as well as an element of her own club’s.
“I think I saw it as important to speak out. Others talk about it privately but then say nothing publicly. I couldn’t do that. I had said that was what the club was going to stand for so I couldn’t just brush it under the carpet. If our supporters do something wrong, which they do at times, then you have to be prepared to say ‘that is not acceptable, that is not what we want’. We expect a better standard of behaviour.
“But I was warned by a number of people not to go there. They said ‘you are creating a rod for your own back’ and that, unfortunately, is an attitude that tends to prevail, but I think if that is the attitude that prevails then nothing is ever going to change so we have to tackle it and be honest about it.
“But I got a lot of positive feedback from our own supporters, from other clubs and from all over. [At] business meetings I went to, people would say I see you did X, Y or Z and they would say ‘good on you’. But as well as that, the thing I really like is that many supporters are beginning to self-police and take a pride in protecting the club’s reputation. They are reporting things and there is an upsurge in people willing to do something about it and I think that is good. That has got to happen if we are going to see real change.”
Budge views Hearts as a kind of family and it is her own family that drives her ideals. As a grandmother she feels a responsibility to protect the younger generation. It’s the right thing to do as a human being, it also makes sound business sense.
“I remember when my daughter said that she reckoned my grand-daughter was old enough to get a season ticket. I said: ‘are you sure?’ because while the people who used to sit around us were all very nice people, every now and again, like all football supporters, they got carried away and certain words would come out. I always believed that it was actually quite tempered because they had this old woman sitting in the middle of them but it does make you think about the whole football experience because there are more and more kids, more families, coming to football.
“It comes back to values again. If, in your private life, you are saying ‘you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that, you should behave in a particular way’ but then you send your grand-daughter to a football match where she watches people behaving in an entirely inappropriate manner then it’s not great. If you want more children to come to football, and I think that is fundamental because, as people say, they are the fans of tomorrow and people say that if you catch them at five, six, seven then they will be back for life, then you have to take some responsibility to ensure it is as acceptable as you can.”