There was no disguising Daniel Stendel’s disappointment in the wake of Saturday’s defeat by St Johnstone, which is why Hearts owner Ann Budge is anticipating a busy January as deals are negotiated to reshape the side, and under-performing stars are shown the door.
Speaking at the club’s annual meeting, the under-scrutiny chairwoman was forced to defend the time she took to relieve Craig Levein of his managerial responsibilities, the decision to keep him at the club until the summer to allow him to see out his contract, having left them battling relegation.
Arguing that his position undermined Daniel Stendel, she tried to assuage those fears. She said Stendel was completely comfortable with the situation and reiterated that there is no overlap, with Levein altering his working hours to keep him away from Oriam while his former squad train, while sidelined interim boss Austin MacPhee has been asked to work from home to negate any conflict.
With Stendel keen to bring in his own staff, and talks ongoing to facilitate that, MacPhee is also seeing out a contract which expires in May, but while still on the books, Budge revealed he will play a role in recruiting the new manager’s targets and helping building valuable partnerships.
But she was emphatic that Stendel is fully in control of first-team matters. “Craig’s got absolutely nothing to do with the first team any more. Daniel doesn’t ask his advice or opinion and he does not offer it. But there are things Craig can help us with in the short term, so why throw that expertise and knowledge away,” she said afterwards, revealing that he now deals with the academy and is overseeing the revamp of the medical department, pulling together the sport scientists, physios, doctors etc.
“When I came in five and a half years ago, even then there were a hardcore of supporters who would never be Craig fans. So it’s not new.
“I just don’t know why they can’t drop it. The guy has lost his job. He’s working his way out of the club. He will still be leaving in the summer as planned and, if he came to me tomorrow and said he had been offered a new job that he wanted to take, then fine. But he’s got a contract until the end of the season and, if I can use him until then, I will.”
There were some feisty and fraught exchanges as the large turnout of shareholders probed for answers but they were matched by a steely resolve from the podium as the chairwoman, who hands over power to the Foundation of Hearts within the next few months, admitted to some mistakes but fiercely defended the board’s stand on many issues.
While she stressed that neither she nor anyone else in the room could offer any guarantees, she stated her belief that newcomer Stendel will help the club turn around on-field fortunes, with recruitment likely to be key to that come next month’s transfer window.
“I had a meeting with Daniel on Monday afternoon and we spoke about a number of things. He is, at the minute, assessing the first-team squad and the loan players. His focus is on getting to know the players he has.
“I’ve said ‘tell me if there is anyone you feel that you can identify now that they will not be able to fit your style of football’.
“Anyone who heard his interview after the game on Saturday will hear that he is not overly impressed with what he has seen, so I’m expecting a bit of a list if I’m honest.”
Looking even further ahead, there are 20 players out of contract by the summer, but whether it is strengthening next month or in the close season, the manager has been warned that there is not “a bottomless pit” he can keep dipping into.
Following another sound financial year, the fact is a poor start to the season had left them £400,000 shy of their revenue targets for this stage of the season, with hospitality, gate receipts and merchandising taking a hit.
But when asked if the club had any contingencies in place in the event of relegation, Budge replied: “No we don’t.”
“If we get another two or three months down the line and things are not going better, then you can be sure we’ll make contingency plans but, right now, I am optimistic that, given where we are in the season, there is plenty of time to turn this around.”
The mood was lifted as former captain and manager Gary Locke issued a final rallying cry and reminded fans of the part they play.
“The biggest problem we have at the moment, as anyone involved in football will tell you, is confidence. It’s shot when you have been on the run we have been on.
“But I’ve been a Hearts fan all my life and in 20-odd years I didn’t see us win anything so we’ve no divine right to win games all the time. Fans have got to remember that. I know it’s tough for us all at the minute but the only way we’ll get out of this mess is by every single person sticking together and that means getting behind the team that’s playing.
“We’ve all got players that we love to hate – I’ve been there myself – but when your confidence is at rock bottom there is nothing worse than the stadium getting on your back. We are being detrimental to the team we love – so get behind the team and hopefully we can get out of this.”