IT IS just as well Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has such a strong work ethic. Ann Budge, the club’s owner, left no-one in any doubt yesterday about what she expects to happen next season as Hearts return to the Premiership after a one-season sabbatical in the Championship.
Barely have the champagne stains dried on the carpet at Tynecastle before Budge is contemplating next season’s targets. A top-six place, she said, was “the minimum” Hearts should be aiming for. “If we finish sixth, we will be happy. I would like to think we will finish above that.”
Of course, it is easier to consider such lofty heights when the club’s finances have been swollen by an amount Budget described as a “significant seven-figure sum”. Hearts have pulled off the impressive feat of guaranteeing a lucrative investment while, at the same time, strengthening their charitable credentials.
A group of Budge’s Hearts-supporting business contacts have agreed to fund a three-year deal that supports both the club and Save the Children. As well as helping children across Edinburgh, the investment, according to a club statement, “will provide critical financial support” to Hearts. The sum translates as their best-ever shirt sponsorship deal. Better still, Save the Children benefit to the tune of a seven-figure sum over three years.
Most of the investment in Hearts will be used in the club’s academy project, with the budget already set for next season in terms of Neilson’s first-team plans. Crucially, yesterday’s news means the club have the luxury of some time as they prepare for next season.
Rather than chase a shirt-sponsorship deal, they already have one. Along with director of football Craig Levein, Neilson is already working on new deals for players as well as scouting others. Levein said: “We would have been out there looking for a commercial deal, and now we don’t need to. From that point of view it is a real bonus for us.”
“We have one or two positions we’d like to strengthen.”Ann Budge
Levein was reluctant to go any deeper into football matters. Budge, however, was slightly less coy. She revealed moves are already afoot to bring in new players.
“I should not be saying this because it is football-related but I do know we have one or two positions we’d like to strengthen,” she said. “All of that is in the pot already. There is a budget.”
As for the question of Hearts’ long-term objectives, she added: “We should be playing at the highest level clearly. I would like to think that, at the very least, we have a clear strategy for the stadium at the end of my tenure.
“We should be doing the kind of things that we are announcing today, which is giving back to the community and helping them address some of the bigger issues.”
Budge knows there will be many more frustrations as she seeks to position Hearts at the forefront of the community again. Sometimes she wants to run before she can walk. Scottish football, she has learned, does not always accommodate “out-of-the-box” thinking.
“By any measure, [Scottish football clubs] are SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises]. I exclude Rangers and Celtic – they are clearly slightly bigger.
“But we are SMEs dealing with the same problems other SMEs deal with. However, the impact [football clubs have] is obviously so much bigger. We have the SPFL and the SFA and all the rules that go with being a football club. Sometimes I say let’s do this, and I’ve been told: ‘No, no you cannot do that, because of the rules about such and such’.
“I think: ‘But that’s not sensible’. So getting change in Scottish football, that is one of the biggest challenges.”
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