IT’s a dauntingly early start when you have to get a bus from the Borders to Edinburgh for the two-train journey to a 12:15pm kick-off in Paisley, but the boys from Peebles Hearts were up for it. As we headed west out of Haymarket, they were already singing the praises of their club’s majority shareholder Ann Budge, and of the party she was supposedly about to host at St Mirren’s ground.
The Peebles contingent and around two and a half thousand other Hearts fans were on their way to observe the end of one era – their club’s 31-year stay in the top flight of Scottish football – and to celebrate the beginning of another – Budge’s takeover. Relegation usually causes an outbreak of despondency for a team and its fans, and certainly the last time Hearts went down, the club’s fortunes both on and off the field looked bleak. But not now.
To an extent, the attitude of those fans is about making a virtue out of necessity: the song about being there when the Hearts go up to lift the Ramsdens Cup was an example of that. But the outbreak of militant joy we have seen in the Tynecastle club’s support over the past six weeks or so has little to do with gallows humour, and goes well beyond mere defiance.
In part, it has been caused by a feeling of massive relief that their club has emerged intact from the rubble of Vladimir Romanov’s business empire, and that the end of a long period in administration is now in sight. But it’s about far more than survival. At root, it has been brought about by the belief that the club is heading in the right direction both on and off the pitch. On it, the team has emerged from a barren winter to hit an excellent streak of form. And behind the scenes, the supporters themselves now call the shots through their mass membership of the Foundation of Hearts.
When the Foundation first set up its direct-debit scheme to fund its planned takeover, there were dire warnings from some observers that the novelty would soon wear off, and that fans would start to cancel their monthly payments. Not a bit of it. Now that the dream has become a reality, the commitment from those fans is becoming greater. One of the Peebles people exemplified this attitude. “I’m in the Foundation and I’ve only been paying a tenner a month, because I’m unemployed,” he said. “But I’ve just put it up to £25.”
The supporters know that they could not have done it without a substantial personal investment from Budge, who in the event chose to stay away from Saturday’s match, preferring not to be a distraction. But equally, that investment was only agreed once the number signed on with the Foundation began to approach its present level of around 8,500. And Budge, who bought an 80 per cent stake in Hearts last week and begins her new role as executive chairwoman today, has already made it clear her involvement is designed to ensure that the club will be owned by its supporters in perpetuity, and can never again be prey to the whims of one individual.
Inevitably, there will be tough decisions along the way. The euphoria of the past few weeks has to fade now as the serious planning begins, and the staff face an anxious wait before learning what future their new boss has in mind for them. As the central figure at the club, manager Gary Locke has been the focus of most speculation, with some people thinking Budge’s choice would be a straightforward one between the incumbent and one of his predecessors, Craig Levein. In the end, it might come down to that, but from this perspective, the picture looks more complex. Rather than having an either-or decision for one position, Budge could opt for a coaching team including both Levein and Locke – although whether the two men would agree to that remains to be seen.
And if Levein is invited to become head of the football division, where does that leave John Murray, the director of football? Then there is the position of Billy Brown, Locke’s assistant, who has been working unpaid since his contract expired earlier this year. Not to mention managing director David Southern, who has worked closely with Murray, particularly since Hearts were plunged into administration last June. Once all that is resolved – and Locke expects to have talks with Budge early this week – the spotlight can shift to the playing staff, with Jamie Hamill, Dylan McGowan, Sam Nicholson, Gary Oliver, Mark Ridgers, Callum Tapping and Jamie MacDonald all about to go out of contract.
Budge has spent the last month or two doing the sums, and will know whether the club can afford to expand its playing squad. One or two players will probably leave over the summer, as is normal at every club, and there is general agreement that, if that is the case, three or four or five would ideally come in.
A significant majority of the fans now appears sure that Locke has done enough to stay, even if the manager joked that the chanting of his name during the second half on Saturday had been started by his dad. And every player who has been asked to comment has credited Locke with a pivotal role in their recent flourishing.
“We’d be grateful for the manager to stay,” striker Dale Carrick said after grabbing the equaliser in the 1-1 draw with St Mirren. “He’s done great with us. He’s turned a new leaf with us and we’re starting to progress, so it would be great for him to be here next season. It would be a major factor us losing him. He has talked us through everything, so the communication between the manager and the team would be lost. We’ve all grown as a team together. We’ve all learned from our mistakes, and that has started to be proved with the results we’ve had. We’re learning a lot quicker now. It’s great to get the news that Ann Budge has come in and is the owner of the club now. I can’t wait till the next chapter.”
Less than 48 hours later, the waiting is over for Carrick, for Locke, and for all those fans who helped give New St Mirren Park its biggest attendance of the season in a so-called meaningless game. A new leaf has been turned. A new author is about to make her voice heard.