ANN Budge wasted no time in getting down to business on her first day in charge of Hearts yesterday, as an extraordinary morning of bloodletting saw manager Gary Locke and eight others all leave Tynecastle. Craig Levein has returned to the club as director of football, a decade after leaving as manager for Leicester City, and Robbie Neilson has been promoted to first-team coach after a highly impressive first season in charge of the under-20 team.
Levein is expected to announce the appointment of more coaching staff shortly, with Craig Gordon being tipped to return as both a player and goalkeeping coach. Alan Combe, who had held the latter position, left with Locke and assistant manager Billy Brown.
Hearts’ two senior goalkeepers, player of the season Jamie MacDonald and Mark Ridgers, are also leaving after not being offered new contracts. The other out-of-contract departures are Jamie Hamill, Dylan McGowan and Callum Tapping, while Ryan Stevenson, who is in contract, will also be allowed to leave under the terms of his agreement. Sam Nicholson, 19, and Gary Oliver, 18, are the only two out-of-contract players to have been offered new deals.
Budge, who bought an 80 per cent shareholding in Hearts last week, had months in which to decide what she wanted to change as she waited for the deal with former backers Ukio Bankas and Ubig to be thrashed out. Hearts will still officially remain in administration under BDO for several weeks, but the businesswoman was eager to begin the wholesale reconstruction of the club as quickly as possible.
In a lengthy statement on the Hearts website, she explained the need for financial stability after the chaotic reign of Vladimir Romanov ended with the club’s existence being under threat. And, while confirming a raft of changes behind the scenes, she admitted that the hardest decision of all was opting to part company with Locke.
“We know it may be an unpopular decision with some of you, but the board has decided that we cannot offer Gary Locke a new contract as manager, at the end of his current contract,” she wrote. “Please believe me when I say this has been an enormously difficult decision to make.
“We all know the pressures that Gary and his assistant, Billy Brown, have worked under over the last year. They were set an almost impossible task, which they handled with dignity and determination. For that, we are all hugely grateful to both of them.
“The players and backroom/support staff at Riccarton will be sorry indeed to see them go – as, I know, will a very large section of the Hearts support. They will both leave with our very grateful thanks and best wishes.”
Locke and Brown declined to comment when they left Tynecastle together yesterday morning after being told by Budge that they were no longer required. It was then left to Levein to inform the playing staff who were on the way out.
“Craig Levein will join the club with immediate effect and will assume total responsibility for everything to do with the playing side of the business,” Budge’s statement continued. “He will be responsible for putting in place an end-to-end strategy for how we are going to implement a youth-driven playing policy within the club.
“John Murray [hitherto director of football] will return to his former role as a chief scout. In the short term, he will also assist with running the Academy, while we identify who should head this up. For the last year, John has taken on a wide sphere of responsibilities in support of the club he loves and for that we owe him a vote of thanks. We are pleased to be able to offer him the opportunity to go back to what he loves best; namely identifying new, young talent.
“These decisions have been driven by everything that has been said about needing a long-term strategy, built over a three-to-five-year planning horizon. For those reasons, the new board believes that we need to bring in someone with Craig’s experience to guide that vision.
“With such a strong director of football on board, we feel we have to spend our limited resources on strengthening and building the coaching side of the business, rather than having a first-team manager. Robbie Neilson will take over as head coach for the first team and we will bring in a strong support team to work with Robbie in terms of an assistant coach and under-20s coach.”
In addition to those changes to the football department, Budge also confirmed that a new board of directors would shortly be in place. She will be chairman and chief executive, Robert Wilson will be deputy CEO and director of planning, Eric Hogg will be operations director, Ian Murray MP will represent the Foundation of Hearts, and Levein as director of football will also have a place on the board.
Although Levein’s return had been mooted for months, most club employees were stunned by the speed and extent of yesterday’s changes. Budge appears to have decided to maintain confidentiality by telling as few people as possible what was coming, with even senior Foundation of Hearts officials only being told around half an hour before the news was made public.
Last night the Foundation issued a statement backing the tough decisions made by the new chief executive. “We absolutely support Ann and what she has said today in her statement,” it said. “The club needs to be rebuilt and that will involve difficult decisions in order to both live within our means and get the foundations in place for the future.
“We have always said that supporters would have to be patient in terms of the club coming out of administration and that patience will also be required for the rebuilding effort. The club has been hollowed out by the previous regime and the ravages of administration.
“We would like to put on record our thanks to everyone involved at the club over the last season, but particularly Gary Locke and Billy Brown. If there was ever an example of how to conduct yourself both professionally and with integrity in the face of adversity it has been Gary and his team. We wish him and everyone else well for the future.”
Statement from Ann Budge
Ann Budge released a statement on Hearts’ official website, saying that it had been clear from her first visits to Tynecastle that “Heart of Midlothian plc was, in every sense of the word, ‘broken’.”
She added: “There was no overarching strategy for how the business should be run. For far too long, there had been no clear leadership. This coupled with the sole focus on day to day survival had left the club in a sorry and perilous financial state. This led to a fundamental disconnect between the various departments and a mountain of issues to be resolved.
“Add to this, the under-investment in various parts of the business and the current financial position, and we have a “broken” Hearts. We must all realise that there is no quick fix for these problems.
“One thing is very clear. We have come far too close to losing our very existence and we must never allow this to happen again. We must grasp this opportunity to start afresh; to put in place solid foundations that will ensure we never again risk our 140 years of history.
“We must put in place a 3-5-year plan that will see our commercial activities totally re-vamped, such that they once again provide a solid financial under-pinning to our football club; and we must also completely revitalise and re-focus the football side of our club.
“We have some excellent young players, who have done us proud in the last season. We owe it to them to create an environment that will help them to continue to flourish and develop. This will take time, patience and the continued loyal support of Hearts’ dedicated fan base.
“Next season cannot simply be about getting back up into the SPFL. Of course, we will be striving for that, but we must take a longer-term view and build for the future. One of the key objectives of the new Board is to put in place a Coaching Education Programme that is second to none in Scottish football. Only by doing so, can we realistically attain the continual year-on-year improvement we are striving for and that will add to the value of the players and the club alike, and help to secure our future.
Change on ‘a fairly major scale’
“This means change on a fairly major scale. Not everyone will agree with all the changes being put in place, but we must address the issues at hand with our heads and not our hearts.
“We have made these tough decisions after much deliberation and much discussion. All we ask is that you give the new management team time and we will show we can deliver.”
Explaining the reasons for Locke’s departure, Budge said: “We know it may be an unpopular decision with some of you, but the Board has decided that we cannot offer Gary Locke a new contract as Manager, at the end of his current contract.
“Please believe me when I say this has been an enormously difficult decision to make. We all know the pressures that Gary and his assistant, Billy Brown, have worked under over the last year.
“Craig Levein will join the club with immediate effect and will assume total responsibility for everything to do with the playing side of the business. He will be responsible for putting in place an end-to-end strategy for how we are going to implement a youth-driven playing policy within the club.
“With such a strong Director of Football on board, we feel we have to spend our limited resources on strengthening and building the Coaching side of the business, rather than having a 1st team manager.
“Robbie Neilson will take over as Head Coach for the 1st team and we will bring in a strong support team to work with Robbie in terms of an Assistant Coach and U20s Coach.”