With Ann Budge’s ownership having coming to an end last month, Ruaraidh Mackay looks back at seven significant on-field highlights from the seven years under her stewardship.
On 30 August 2021, Ann Budge signed Heart of Midlothian FC over to its loyal support, completing the transfer of the largest fan-owned club in the United Kingdom. Going back to 2014, after the rollercoaster era of Vladimir Romanov, there was an expectation that things would perhaps be smoother under the Edinburgh businesswoman.
As it turned out, there were almost too many big off-field moments in the Budge era to document – the on-field highlights seemed few and far between in comparison. In typical Hearts fashion though, they could still produce big moments when needed. Seven of what I consider to be the most significant are ranked below.
7. Hearts 2-1 Aberdeen (20 October 2018)
Perhaps this is a strange one to start with when discussing the on-field highlights of Ann Budge’s time at Hearts, considering there are far more memorable wins against Hibs, Rangers and Celtic to choose from. However, this win over Aberdeen in October 2018 signalled a real belief and steeliness in the Hearts side Craig Levein was assembling.
It stretched their Premiership lead to three points, and most importantly, ensured the side bounced back after a damaging first league defeat at Ibrox to Rangers two weeks prior. Hearts were missing key players like Peter Haring, John Souttar, Christophe Berra and Uche Ikpeazu, and pre-match predictions proclaimed a sure-fire Aberdeen victory in Gorgie. Despite the injuries, others stepped up for Hearts. Arnaud Djoum swanned around and constantly found space in key areas. Steven Naismith snarled and snapped his way around the pitch in customary fashion, before stroking home the winning penalty. It wasn’t so much the manner of the win – Hearts often dominate Aberdeen at Tynecastle – it was the fact that the squad players had stepped up and maybe, just maybe, Ann Budge’s much discussed ‘Five Year Plan’ would produce a title charge.
6. Hearts 2-1 Celtic (31 July 2021)
Hopefully this result will be looked upon even more fondly in May next year. Hearts fans had spent the summer feeling slightly flat, despite returning to the Scottish Premiership at the first time of asking.
Performances in Robbie Neilson’s second spell had generally mirrored these feelings, although there was an encouraging upturn in displays following a change to a 3-4-3 formation. With a lack of signings to get fans overly excited, there was perhaps more intrigue over the unknown quality of Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic side. This was one of the only real causes for optimism as the SPFL mainframe – the most derided computer since the T-1000 – threw up a clash with Celtic on the opening game of the season.
Cue Beni Baningime. The midfielder was signed from Everton and was boldly flung straight into the first eleven. As it turned out, Beni dominated, John Souttar scored, a celebrating fan inexplicably pulled his hood over his head live on camera, and all was finally well again in Gorgie.
5. Hearts 2-0 Queen of the South (28 March 2015)
OBE. How good did that feel? To watch newly-crowned champions Hearts step out at a sold out Tynecastle had fans feeling as light as the maroon and white balloons floating into the sky. The match itself was little more than a side show, as the home side comfortably saw off Queen of the South, who themselves were pushing for the play offs that season.
The satisfaction of knowing that one of Rangers or Hibernian would not be playing top-flight football the following season was almost too much smugness to bear for fans inside Tynecastle. The party went on into the night as Hearts returned to the Premiership at the first time of asking, bookending what was a persistent feel-good 2014/15 campaign, Budge’s first as owner of the football club.
4. Hearts 4-1 Rangers (1 February 2017)
Arise the Laptop Revolution. With the transfer window delivering a dizzying exhibition of European pedigree through the Tynecastle doors, it truly felt like Ian Cathro had finally arrived. Make no mistake, despite what would eventually occur, he was initially a hugely popular choice amongst Hearts fans to replace Robbie Neilson. It was utterly fascinating to both supporters and media alike how the 30-year-old ex-Valencia and Newcastle coach would fare in management.
Despite the hype, the revolution hadn’t got off to a perfect start, with Cathro’s new style struggling to make a mark on a squad used to Robbie Neilson. There were sprouts of optimism, particularly during a 4-0 trouncing of Kilmarnock, however it wouldn’t be until the 4-1 annihilation of Rangers on a cold February night that Cathro could feel like he had got underway in Gorgie. He called it ‘the most complete we’ve been across 90 minutes.’ Jamie Walker was imperious and at the peak of his powers, exemplifying the all-action Hearts performance with a sharp interception and raking drive from range. The substitute appearance of Alexandros Tziolis only further whetted the appetite of Hearts fans, as he oozed elegance on the ball. This was without a doubt Ian Cathro’s peak at Hearts, before the sharpest of tumbles, as Ann Budge’s much discussed experiment sadly failed.
3. Hearts 2-0 Rangers (22 November 2014)
The bouts against Rangers evoked more heavyweight hype compared to the Edinburgh derbies during the 2014/15 Championship campaign. Having Osman Sow squeeze a late winner at Ibrox on the opening day of the season in many ways was the catalyst for what was going to come, as Hearts embarked on a 20-game unbeaten league run to steal a big march at the top of the table.
The Rangers matches were always going to be key to any title challenge, with broadcasters scarcely believing their luck at such a tantalising set of clashes. It was the 14th fixture of the season where things would take a turn for both sides, however, as Hearts saw out a 2-0 win at a jam-packed Tynecastle. Once again, Robbie Neilson’s young team were shining, with exceptional performances from Jamie Walker, Callum Paterson and Jason Holt ensuring the league leaders moved nine points clear at the top of the table.
2. Hearts 2-1 Hibs (Scottish Cup Semi-Final, 31 October 2020)
“After everything they’ve gone through, after all that they’ve experienced, the hurt, the anguish, the anger, they lead in the derby again.”
It was the result that mattered most. With everything that had happened since this game was originally scheduled to be played – demotion, court cases, training bans – it was a demoralising time to be a Hearts fan. Enter a wildly buoyant Hibs fanbase, salivating at the chance to smash the ultimate nail in the coffin of their rivals.
Flying high in the league, and with a side who had many more games under their belt than the Jam Tarts, it looked like it was going to be a colossal ask for a Hearts victory, but after a truly dramatic 120 minutes Hearts had done it. Liam Boyce’s winning penalty and celebration will rightly go down in folklore. And as for Hibs? They would go on to lose two more vital games at Hampden that season, solidifying their trademark of ‘Hibsing It’.
1. Hearts 4-0 Celtic (17 December 2017)
You would imagine the snap of the net followed by the booming roar of the crowd comes screaming back to Harry Cochrane every now and then. Sixteen years young and with a left peg finish to match that of a certain Mr Skacel, it felt like Cochrane had ushered in a new era of youthful talent under Craig Levein. Anthony McDonald (16) and Jamie Brandon (19) also played in the 4-0 destruction of Brendan Rodgers’ 69-game ‘Invincibles’ in front of what the BBC labelled a ‘raucous cauldron of delirium’.
It was Hearts’ biggest win over Celtic in 122 years, achieved by a motley crew of a squad that would barely reach mid-table that season. Despite very low pre-match expectations, the energy expelled on the Tynecastle pitch that day was akin to a hurricane, blasting aside anyone not of a maroon persuasion.