Interview: Ann Budge on why she’s backing Robbie Neilson

Hearts owner Ann Budge. Picture: John Devlin
Hearts owner Ann Budge. Picture: John Devlin
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Ann Budge ponders the suggestion for a moment or two then concedes that she probably has made a rod for her own back. The whole club has.

The aeroplane stunt above Tynecastle on Saturday illustrated just how expectations have been raised. Higher standards have been set but the anti-Robbie Neilson message trailed across the sky appears to have been no more than a childish temper tantrum by those who have failed to meet the more exacting standards.

A few days earlier the Hearts owner had been discussing the behaviour of fans and had smiled when someone referred to her as a protective mother keeping watch over her 16,000 ‘children’ who fill the stadium for every home game. At that stage she had been discussing the complaint of abuse made by Kilmarnock’s Josh Magennis and the ongoing battle to root out the fans intent on spoiling the match day experience for others and either encouraging them to reassess their behaviour, “which would be the preferred option”, or to stay away.

The understanding is that some of those who had been delivered such ultimatums were behind the aerial advertising. If so, that stunt was as crass and ill-judged as the behaviour that incurred the wrath of the club in the first place. Booed by supporters inside the stadium, the dig at the manager is unlikely to affect the way things are done at Hearts, while the views of those responsible fly in the face of general consensus and the opinion of the woman who handed over millions to help save the club from liquidation.

She recently handed Neilson a contract extension at a time when supporters were disgruntled by a Scottish Cup exit and a return of one win in five. Spoiled by a diet consisting largely of triumphs and titles since Budge assumed control and appointed her director of football Craig Levein and Neilson as the head coach, there were mumblings of discontent. The timing of the deal, which ties the young manager to the club until the end of the 2017-18 season and was rewarded with a return of three wins in three games in a week, was coincidental and not intended as a bullish vote of confidence. It was simply the next matter on an agenda which is never ending.

“We had a planning session in November to look at the squad for this year and next and talk about players,” said Budge. “At that time I said to Craig, what about Robbie and Stevie [Crawford, the assistant manager] and the coaching side and he said let’s get the transfer window out the way first. So we did. It was business as usual. I do joke that it was good last year when we were winning every week. It was so much easier. But I understand that we will have hiccups and I like to take quite a long-term view. I know that can be a 
problem in football at times.

“In terms of what we are trying to do with the club and the football side of things, equally, it is about bringing through youth and that is not going to happen overnight. I want a succession planning approach to a lot of things and, on the management side of things, I wanted to avoid the situation where someone is here for a couple of years and does it his way and then suddenly you find you have to get someone else and he comes in and wants to do things another way.

“I didn’t have any doubts [about extending the contract]. Robbie and I meet regularly and he is also young and the thing I like about him is that he accepts that he is learning. My view is that everyone here is committed to it being a long road and we know we are not going to change things overnight. There is still a lot to be done on the coaching side but Robbie wants to be part of that and he is very realistic. Yes, he had a fantastic year last year in the Championship but he has only been in the Premiership as a manager for a few months and we are sitting in third place and looking like we might be able to qualify for Europe next season, so we have come a long way but we still want to improve.”

Sitting among the fans for years, she was aware that the time would come when results faltered and criticism would rain down.

“I was always conscious of it as a supporter. I would hear people talking or shouting things at games and I would laugh and think ‘have they forgotten such and such’. So it’s not as if I was blind to it. Recent reactions haven’t surprised me because football fans can be fickle. But I’m a realist so, did I expect us to win everything? Absolutely not. There are always ups and downs.”

If the manager and Levein have had some critics on forums and phone-ins, so too has Budge. Dubbed the Queen of Hearts and still considered Hearts royalty by the vast majority of the fans, she accepts she has ruffled feathers with her no-nonsense stance on crowd trouble, unacceptable chants, scuffles, flares or unacceptable flags.

She released a statement recently outlining how much it has cost the club, financially and in terms of reputation, and has banned offenders. Some have accused her of over-reacting. She shakes her head.

“I would get loads of letters coming in from people asking what I was going to do about the behaviour because they couldn’t see, or because they had their kids with them, or whatever the reason was. I don’t want to come across as some kind of puritan because we all know what football is like but certain things happened that meant we had to do something before it got out of hand. So, do I regret that statement? No, I don’t actually. I do think it’s important to act if they are spoiling the experience for others. We don’t want to lose any supporters but everyone has to realise that there are some things they can’t do.”

Forget plane messages, for the Hearts supremo, it’s all about plain talking.