IT WAS a present that has ended up costing Ann Budge a fortune. A few million pounds in fact.
Introduced to Tynecastle by her daughter, Carol, who bought her a match ticket as part of her 40th birthday celebrations, the woman dubbed the “Queen of Hearts” assumed control of the Gorgie club in the summer and is intent on returning it to the fans as a sustainable business and successful football club.
But it wasn’t what she signed up for when she accompanied her daughter to that first game, almost two decades ago. “Football was always a big thing in the family,” she explained, “and my brothers were always into it, so it was always there or thereabouts. But it was my daughter who got me a ticket and afterwards I said, as you would expect a mum to say to her daughter, ‘Oh thanks, Carol, that was good, I really enjoyed that more than I thought I would’ and she immediately said, ‘Oh good, so you’ll come back next time then?’ My birthday is in February and for the rest of that season we went to the games as a walk-up and when we got to the end of the season Carol said we may as well get season tickets because it had been so much fun and she was right. It was a way to spend time with my daughter and it was a complete switch off from work and I did enjoy it. So we bought two season tickets and that was it. I certainly didn’t think I would be buying the club. You could argue that it was quite an expensive birthday present she bought me!”
Looking at how things have transpired since she took over from the Romanov regime, she is, naturally, ecstatic. On the field the team remain unbeaten in the Championship and on course for a swift return to the Premiership, while off-field, matters are buoyant, with the restructuring work going to plan and the fans’ response nothing but positive.
“You know football and you know that there are daily frustrations and issues that you have to deal with, but we got off to such a great start that everyone is buzzing and the way the fans have supported us, in attending the games but also the hospitality, every aspect of running the club has been good. Long may it continue. I certainly didn’t think that it would have all gone so well. I can’t be anything other than absolutely delighted.”
But she is candid enough to confess that she had her fears the day the fixture list was released. First up was Rangers, then they faced the first derby of her watch. “I did think, ‘Gosh, this is going to be tough’. I knew it would be great if we could get off to a good start, but if we didn’t then it could have made things difficult’.” Her concerns were assuaged by both her director of football Craig Levein and her head coach Robbie Neilson and they justified that mood with back-to-back wins.
Used to her fair share of capital derby success, the 2-1 victory over Hibs did not fill her with the same joy as previous Edinburgh head-to-heads.
“The excitement is still there and there is so much hype so the adrenaline still goes,” she said. “But you know what does make it different, in a funny sort of way, when I used to go to the matches with my daughter I would have my jeans and my Hearts top on and my warm coat and scarf. I used to walk out in my Timberland boots and my furry jacket and I would feel like I was heading to the football. Now I go to the match in a pair of high heels and it feels like going to work.”
She says the reason she fell in love with the game was the sense of escapism it afforded her. It was bonding time with her daughter but, as a successful business woman, it was also the one time in the week when she truly forgot about work.
“Different people have asked if I enjoy the games as much and I will say it is getting better, but for the first few games I definitely didn’t enjoy them as much.” Certainly not the derby. Those are the games where emotions are usually heightened but in her new role she had to find a way to contain them.
“You know you’ve got to behave yourself, you are so close to the Hibs directors. I have learned there is a kind of decorum needed in the directors’ box.”
Which is why she has been unable to convince her daughter to trade in their season-ticket seats in the Wheatfield Stand for a perch alongside her. It reveals the family’s passion for the club, but also how much Budge has sacrificed to help save it. She hasn’t just paid a financial sum, but an emotional price.
The adrenaline may be pumping ahead of today’s trip to Easter Road, but no victory could afford the owner the same joy she has experienced when sharing past triumphs with her daughter and her family.
“The [Scottish Cup] final was obviously astonishing,” she said. “As a Hearts fan it was amazing, but I have to admit that after the fifth one went in, I thought, ‘Gosh, all these Hibs supporters, think how awful they are going to feel going back to Edinburgh’, so I did have a wee feeling that while it was great that we won it, I was aware that there were young guys out there who would have to live with that score. I did have a bit of sympathy.
My daughter still criticises me to this day for even thinking that way. She wanted us to keep going and get as many goals as possible. But it was special and the next day we were sitting on the High Street as a family group watching the players on the bus as it came up the Royal Mile.”
Someone who takes each game as it comes, stating it is Carol who feels more suicidal after defeats, she says she knows the feeling of losing derbies, but does not dwell on the details, preferring to conjure up the more plentiful positives.
Toddle down memory lane and names like Mark de Vries pop up as she recalls the 5-1 triumph in 2002, in the big striker’s first capital clash. It was also the derby debut of Jean-Louis Valois, who became one of her favourites.
“You won’t be surprised, but I also remember the 4-4 game later that season but I remember that because I wasn’t there! I was actually on holiday in Spain with my sister and brother-in-law who is actually a Hibs fan, so he had his phone and was getting messages from his daughter and I had my phone and was getting messages from my daughter and, of course, I was feeling pretty down in the dumps towards the end of the game, but then we got the two late goals and my phone would go and his phone would go and it was actually really amazing in the end.”
But while guys like John Robertson, Mark de Vries and Wayne Foster have achieved cult status in the derby showdowns, Budge has her own particular hero.
“I’m going back a few years now but the only football player’s picture I’ve ever hung on my wall is Neil McCann’s,” she confesses. “I was a big Neil McCann fan and I remember going to Easter Road when we won 1-0 and Neil scored and I remember before the game my brother, who is a Hibs fan, had asked me what I thought the score would be and I said it would be 1-0 and that Neil McCann would score so I was delighted that was the way it turned out.”
She will be just as delighted if Hearts leave Leith with another win this afternoon. The difference is that this time she won’t be able to exhibit her elation so openly. But she will smile and be grateful that at least she won’t have to worry about cheering up a distraught daughter, the same daughter whose 40th birthday present which helped save a club but has cost the Queen of Hearts more than money.