Hearts majority shareholder Ann Budge admits she hopes the club will be back challenging for European football within two seasons.
The self-made IT millionaire is aiming high following her successful takeover of the club in June, when she joined forces with the Foundation of Hearts to lift the Tynecastle outfit out of a distressing 12-month spell in administration. With rookie head coach Robbie Neilson, whom she described as “amazing”, masterminding a nine-point lead over Rangers at the Championship summit, Budge reckons they have all the tools in place to fulfil that target.
Speaking at yesterday’s annual general meeting, Budge, whose predecessor Vladimir Romanov’s bold plan to lead Hearts to Champions League glory led the club to financial ruin, said: “In terms of planning ahead and looking at aspirations for the club, we are quite bullish although realistic.
“I personally see no reason at all why we shouldn’t be striving in the next couple of seasons to get back into Europe because I think that’s where we belong as a club.”
Neilson, who replaced Gary Locke during the summer, has taken to the dugout like a duck to water, winning three out of four Championship manager of the month awards in his maiden season as a head coach.
While most of the focus this term has been on the exciting young players in the Hearts squad, Budge reckons the former club captain is destined to be prised away by a bigger club.
Budge, who admitted there was money available to add new players during the January transfer window, added: “I think he’s amazing.
“Obviously as a supporter I had seen Robbie as a player and I knew he was here in a capacity.
“When he was suggested to me as a head coach I was intrigued a little bit.
“Clearly there was a risk because of his lack of experience in that capacity but he has surpassed everybody’s expectations.
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“I think he has a fantastic career ahead of him.
“I am a realist but I would love to hold on to him for an indefinite period.
“In reality he will move on to a bigger club, I don’t doubt that.
“But what we have been talking about, from before he even got the job, was essentially succession planning.
“And that’s crucial to what we are trying to do here. If he was to go tomorrow it would give us perhaps a bit of a challenge but I don’t think that will happen.
“But when it is the right time for Robbie to go, I hope we as a club will be ready to backfill, as the term goes.”
Director of football Craig Levein also addressed shareholders at the agm and he described Neilson as a workaholic.
He said: “I believe, without fear of contradiction, that he is the hardest working manager in Scottish football.
“He works his players as hard as he works, he embraces everything that the club is about.
“I don’t say that lightly that he is the hardest working manager in Scottish football.
“He will come into the academy on a Saturday morning and watch the kids play. That has a huge influence on the parents and kids that he has a deep interest in the academy. He is a crucial cog on the wheel.
“The team round about him have been fantastic too. He is a remarkably calm young man, which I think transfers into the dressing room.”
Budge was asked by a shareholder whether she planned to take any action after the recent Scottish Cup defeat by Celtic was plagued by off-field problems.
In a statement released shortly after last month’s tie, Budge condemned the away fans for vandalising nearly 100 seats and also expressed her disappointment in supporters from both sides that participated in sectarian abuse.
Budge admitted Hearts could look to cut Celtic’s usual 3,500 ticket allocation should Hearts earn promotion.
She added: “I think we all agree that the kind of behaviour that was on display was completely unacceptable. I do have to say there was a little bit of that on the Hearts side.
“I’ve had many e-mails saying that unless you do something you won’t have any Hearts fans at the Celtic game, I do know it’s a serious issue.
“To a certain extent, it will be a little bit like the Rangers situation this season.
“If we have appetite from the Hearts support to attend the game then it is within our power to limit the amount of tickets we provide to the opposition.
“We will have to address it when it comes, hopefully next year, and we will be making it clear to the fans that we need them so we can limit the amount of tickets that we give to Celtic.”
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