Stephen Halliday: Ann Budge’s halo is starting to slip

Ann Budge this week refuted suggestions that Hearts manager Craig Levein is 'bombproof'. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS
Ann Budge this week refuted suggestions that Hearts manager Craig Levein is 'bombproof'. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS
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No chairman or chief executive of a football club should ever be 
discouraged from a willingness 
to engage with their club’s 
supporters.

There have been – and still are – too many examples in Scottish football of those in positions of power who are only too happy 
to remain remote and 
unaccountable.

So in that regard at least, Ann Budge can be commended for entering the public domain this week to address the mounting concerns and levels of discontent among Hearts fans over the 
direction of their team under Craig Levein’s management.

But the manner in which Budge chose to reiterate her continuing faith in Levein has left her under just as much pressure and scrutiny from the Gorgie punters as her head coach/director of football faces in Sunday’s derby showdown with Hibs at Easter Road.

It’s clear that the otherwise slick and switched-on PR team at Hearts are not afforded the authority of any quality control when it comes to “editing” Budge’s pronouncements.

The rambling nature of her 1,300-word missive on the Hearts website, bizarrely punctuated
throughout with a series of ellipses, made Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard’s much derided performance at First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood this week appear lucid by comparison.

Hearts supporters owe Budge an eternal debt of gratitude for her role in saving the club from liquidation five years ago. Her intervention then, underpinning what is planned to become an eventual fan-ownership model at Hearts, was clear and decisive.

Budge was widely hailed as a “breath of fresh air” in Scottish football and justifiably enjoyed high approval ratings as Hearts were convincingly returned to the top flight on the pitch while clearing up the mess left by the Vladimir Romanov regime off it.

But just as Levein’s status and reputation in the eyes of Hearts supporters is steadily declining, so too is Budge’s halo starting to slip.

She may be dismissive of the perception Levein is “bombproof” because of the close relationship and understanding the duo have developed since he returned to the club in 2014 as a key part of her restructuring plan.

But right now, Levein certainly looks like the Teflon Don of football management. It is difficult to imagine anyone else surviving as long as he has done in the Hearts technical area on the back of his wretched league record over the past 12 months.

For a club whose stated aim 
on Budge’s watch is European
football every year, Levein’s 
Premiership results could have long been regarded as a sacking offence.

Since their positive start to last season went awry, Hearts have been floundering. They have dropped 71 points from a 
possible 99 in their last 33 league games. They have won only two of their last 19 league games. Their current position at the bottom of the Premiership table isn’t a false or freakish one, regardless of the considerable injury woes they have experienced.

The size of the Hearts squad, which Budge herself describes in her statement as arguably the strongest the club have put 
together since she took charge, should be capable of coping more effectively with the current 
absentees.

As Levein approaches the 99th and 100th matches of his second spell as Hearts manager over the next few days, he may yet prove Budge’s backing is not simply a case of wilful blindness on her part.

But anything less than emerging unscathed from the Edinburgh derby and victory in Wednesday’s Betfred Cup quarter-final at home to Aberdeen is likely to result in fresh protests from Hearts fans focusing as much on Budge’s running of the club as they do on Levein’s position.