HOME is where the heart is. And if it is to be the long-term dwelling place for her football club, it also has to be where the head is, according to Hearts owner Ann Budge.
When Budge assumed control of Hearts, she was determined not to allow sentiment to usurp sound business sense. In her first year at the helm she has succeeded, restoring reputations and balancing the books while also assembling the personnel to deliver silverware and promotion.
But when it comes to the future of Tynecastle, she concedes that emotions have influenced her thinking. While conceding that moving away from the stadium would be the easiest and possibly most cost-effective solution to Hearts’ current conundrums, she no longer views it as the only option.
“If I go back to before I got involved with football, and I had heard all the discussions about Tynecastle, I would sit there in my ivory tower and think the answer is obvious: ‘Of course we need to move to a new stadium, with new facilities, do this and do that, which would be totally fit for purpose’,” says Budge. “I would think: ‘I can’t understand why they are even faffing about with this.’
“But having been here for a year, heard so many people speak passionately about Tynecastle, I think there has got to be a step, and the next step is going to be what can we do to keep us at Tynecastle. Despite all the challenges that could bring, it is about how we can overcome these challenges. We are still doing the work, still looking at all the options, and all the difficulties, etc, but I am looking at it from the point of view of ‘how can we stay here, what can we do to make this viable?’ ”
Budge insists it is not a case of heart completely overruling head.
The next step is going to be what can we do to keep us at TynecastleAnn Budge
“In the run-up to getting involved with the club, there were a number of people who said: ‘You do realise the tens of millions which have been lost in football? You don’t want to get involved’. I had a lot of advice which said no one quite understands why [business people losing the head in football] happens but, having been involved for a wee while, I can perhaps understand why it is. You do get caught up in things and you have to check yourself and remind yourself that it is a business. I hope I will be able to maintain that. I think I will.”
But having connected with her customer base in a way few of her predecessors did, Budge recognises that sentiment is part and parcel of the game and hopes there will be a way to satisfy business demands and the emotional need to stay at Tynecastle.
“I think you have got to take all of these things into account. Then still make a sensible business decision. It is only if we can actually make the economics work. Like to what extent could we increase the capacity and what would be the implications?”
As far back as 1990, when former owner Wallace Mercer talked of a merger with Hibs and a single purpose-built stadium, the need for upgraded facilities has been clear. But the partial revamp of Tynecastle has been restricted by the ongoing battle to overcome the constraints imposed by the old main stand. Full of character but crumbling and claustrophobic, there is no obvious solution to its limitations.
But the threat of leaving the club’s Gorgie home prompted a backlash against former owner Chris Robinson, whose board said Tynecastle was not fit for purpose. That was a major reason Budge’s predecessor, Vladimir Romanov, was welcomed with open arms when he bought control, thereby staving off the planned move to Murrayfield and halting the sale of the site to housing developers.
But with a relatively small footprint and planning constrictions due to surrounding businesses, school buildings and flats, the Lithuanian-based banker found it tougher than anticipated to find a cost-effective way of upgrading and enhancing the stadium.
Budge knows the scale of her task but still wants to have a viable proposal in place by the end of next season, and believes safeguarding the long-term future of Tynecastle could be her lasting legacy.
In her first year in charge the majority of the feedback has been positive. The only real gripes have been prompted by the stadium. Budge is trying to find the solution but the issues cropping up are more than mere snagging and the remedies will continue to grow more costly as time takes an even greater toll on the old stand.
But, if Robinson claimed it was not fit for purpose all those years ago, where does that leave Tynecastle now? “That’s quite a difficult question to answer because we have continued to use the stadium for ten years,” says Budge. “Look at the display we had on Saturday – it is a fantastic stadium and it was fit for purpose. It creates an enjoyable atmosphere for fans. But, having said all that, there are challenges.”
She knows that something is going to have to give eventually, which is why she wants swift answers to all the key questions. Can the work can be carried out mid-season? Will the fans accept moving to Murrayfield for an entire campaign if it means eventually moving back into a new stadium on the Tynecastle site? Is the site big enough? Can hospitality and seating capacity be increased sufficiently to have it pay for itself over time? Can Hearts get planning permission?
“That is a big challenge,” she says. “It is not just the building issues, it is about how do you actually get through the stage when you are making these changes. These are all sorts of things we are looking at. What could we do if we decide to do this, and what are the options? I know there was a great deal of dissatisfaction when we played a couple of games at Murrayfield and we all understand why.
“I was in that stand at Murrayfield thinking ‘Gosh, where is the atmosphere?’ but I think – and I am not saying that is the solution, we are looking at others – if supporters knew it was getting done for a reason, then I think we might get a bit more by it.”
One idea she won’t float, though, is ground-sharing Easter Road. “I don’t know if I would be able to get that one by the supporters! Economically it is probably the best option but I do have to be a wee bit cautious.
“We are working quite hard on coming up with the various scenarios. I would like to think that by the end of next year – this is not a commitment – we would have enough information to be able to say ‘that is possible while that is just not going to work’.
“By the time we hand over we will have a very clear path. We might not have started the work but at the very least I wanted us to have considered all the options and have a very good plan in place. That would be the legacy as opposed to everything else.”