Budge just needed green light to go with Levein

ANN Budge first met Craig Levein in late August of last year, once it had become apparent that she had a realistic chance of taking control at Tynecastle. The two were introduced by a mutual acquaintance in the public-relations industry, and discussed a variety of Hearts-related issues for around 90 minutes at Channings Hotel in central Edinburgh.

Craig Levein has been appointed as  Hearts director of football by Ann Budge. Picture: SNS
Craig Levein has been appointed as Hearts director of football by Ann Budge. Picture: SNS

Budge, unlike many others who have become owners of football clubs, freely confessed to her lack of expert knowledge about the sport. She therefore needed to glean information from a senior figure such as Levein who had not only managed at club and international level, but had also been involved in the business side of sports administration – at Dundee United, he had served on the board of directors.

Levein, for his part, was willing to talk about Hearts, the club he had managed for four years from late 2000, on the grounds that he was not then seeking a return to Tynecastle. His focus, he insisted, was on returning to club management in England.

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In other words, that initial meeting was in no way a job interview, and for months thereafter there was no follow-up appointment. Subsequently, Levein was labelled Budge’s football consultant, which was true in so far as she had consulted him about football, but gave the misleading impression of a formal association. The link was far more casual than that.

Even so, Budge left the meeting extremely impressed by Levein. Not only had he offered a detailed picture of how the football division of a club should work, he had also demonstrated a thorough understanding of how the whole club should be structured. For someone such as Budge who was steadily coming to terms with the utter shambles left at Tynecastle by previous owner Vladimir Romanov, Levein’s professionalism and perspicacity could not fail to be attractive.

Yet according to friends, between that summer meeting and 13 February this year when Budge was publicly named as the sole financial backer of the Foundation of Hearts, she and Levein neither met again nor talked on the phone. “There was simply no communication whatsoever”, one source said last night.

Most of those friends had picked up the impression that Budge was inclined to appoint Levein should her takeover go through, and that impression was strengthened by the esteem in which the former manager was and is held by senior figures in the Foundation of Hearts. But Budge kept her own counsel.

Those who previously knew chapter and verse about the planned takeover were gradually left out of the loop as the probability of a successful purchase of the club increased. Even in recent days, as supporters’ pressure to keep Gary Locke as Hearts manager mounted, the Foundation’s office-bearers were unsure about what was going to happen. They eventually learned yesterday morning, barely half an hour before the news of Levein’s installation and Locke’s departure was broken.

Although Budge released a long statement yesterday on the Hearts website outlining her vision for the club, there was no explicit criticism of the now-departed manager, and no mention of some of the worst days of the season just ended, such as the 7-0 humiliation by Celtic in the Scottish Cup in December. “The Board has decided that we cannot offer Gary Locke a new contract as manager,” the statement simply said.

It is entirely possible that, having opted for Levein as director of football, Budge decided he should immediately take responsibility for every football decision. And if Levein wanted Robbie Neilson as his first-team coach rather than Locke, then so be it.

The statement did add that, “with such a strong director of football on board”, there was no need for a first-team manager – the position occupied by Locke. But that is little more than semantic quibbling.

In reality, it is common practice that people coming in to run a football club get to choose those who work with them. If the axing of Locke, assistant manager Billy Brown and goalkeeping coach Alan Combe appeared brutal, such an act is common practice in an industry short on sentiment.

And both Budge and Levein almost certainly acted on the principle that if there is any bloodletting to be done, better it be done swiftly. Hearts managed it on the first day of the new owner’s reign, and the first day of the close season. You cannot get any swifter than that.

Levein is expected to announce additions to his staff shortly, possibly beginning this morning, when he will hold a press conference at the ground. Craig Gordon has been touted to make a return in a dual role, as goalkeeper and goalkeeping coach, which would at least explain the decision to let go not only Combe, but also first-choice ’keeper Jamie MacDonald and his understudy Mark Ridgers.

Both Budge and Levein must have been aware for some time of the deep divisions within Hearts, between Locke and Brown on the one hand and managing director David Southern and erstwhile director of football John Murray on the other. A power struggle between the two factions culminated earlier this year in the decision by Bryan Jackson of administrators BDO not to renew Brown’s contract – a decision that was reversed after lobbying by Locke and several senior players. Most of those players left the club yesterday along with their former bosses.

It would be wrong, even so, to say that one faction has won that power struggle. Murray is to return to his former role as chief scout, while Southern, although staying on at present, will be part of a bigger team behind the scenes thanks to Budge’s appointment of new directors. In other words, neither man has had his power enhanced.

In any case, yesterday’s changes were not about settling scores, but about starting work on new foundations at Hearts – “solid foundations”, as Budge put it, “that will ensure we never again risk our 140 years of history”. She has embarked on what she sees as a three- to five-year plan to transform every aspect of the club. By appointing Levein, she has already made what is likely to be her biggest decision in that timespan – and the decision upon which, more than any other, her reign at Hearts will be judged by posterity.