Scottish Cup final 2019: Hearts owner Budge on cup dreams, criticism, and whether Craig Levein is 'bomb proof'
|Scottish Cup final: Hearts v Celtic|
|Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Saturday, 25 May Time: 15:00 BST|
|Coverage: Watch live on BBC One Scotland; listen on BBC Radio Scotland; text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.|
In the wake of Hearts seeing off Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Hampden last month Ann Budge - chairman, chief executive and Queen of Tynecastle - congratulated her players before reminding them that she'd never seen the club lose a cup final. Three visits, three victories. "No pressure," she joked.
In a way she was right. There's no real stress on Hearts on Saturday, no anticipation of a win from anybody outside their bubble. No win in five and no Steven Naismith, their most influential player by far. The Hearts fans will hope for the best while at the same being prepared for the worst.
Celtic have won 26 cup ties in a row, 21 of them with clean sheets. In 39 hours of knockout football they've been behind for a grand total of 47 minutes. They've scored 81 goals and conceded just seven. Eighty one goals is the same number Hearts have scored in all competitions in the past two seasons combined.
Still, Budge can dream, saying: "It would mean an awful lot to all of us but if we managed to win then the person it would mean most to would be Craig [Levein]. I know how hard he works and how much he loves this club. He'd be the first one I'd think of. For him, it wouldn't just be winning silverware that was special, it would be winning it with Hearts."
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'Nobody's bomb proof'
You'll go a long way to find somebody who thinks they're going to do it. Budge says it's a one-off game and anything can happen in cup football, but that's not been true of Celtic these past three seasons. Only one thing tends to happen - they win and win and win.
And Hearts are not in a great place right now. This has been a marathon season for them. In some senses it feels like more than one, given everything that has happened. A blistering start to the league campaign had Tynecastle in raptures, then Levein's heart attack, then a succession of debilitating injuries to key players, then a collapse in form followed by bitterness and rancour among sections of the support, followed by Levein being bawled out at games in the most vicious way.
Serious criticism of the style of play, of the recruitment, of the sixth-placed finish. Budge says she budgets for fourth place in the league. Hearts were 16 points off fourth. Last season it was 18 points. It's not good, but if the underdog roars on Saturday all of that will be pushed to the side in the blink of an eye.
Budge thinks the world of Levein, but she's not deaf to the views of the fans. "I hear some supporters saying that Craig is bomb proof, but he's not, I can say that categorically," she explains. "I've been in business a long time and nobody is bomb proof. This has been a very topsy-turvy season. Are we still heading in the right direction? I genuinely believe so. As long as I feel that's the case then I'll back our plan and I'll back the people who are working incredibly hard to deliver it.
"Let me say something else. If Craig thought things were going really badly and that he was part of the issue he would be the first person to say, 'this isn't working'. Now, does that mean I'm not prepared to deal with it if I think it's not working? No, it doesn't. Right now, the truth is that I'm not unhappy with this season. It's not what we wanted, but we've been to a League Cup semi-final at Murrayfield and we're in a Scottish Cup final at Hampden. We're in the top six. Our financial results will be good. Five years ago [after going into administration] we would probably have been pretty happy to say that this is where we would be."
'Some fans will never accept Craig'
Tynecastle is not a place for snowflakes. It's loud and aggressive and impatient. When things are going badly it's abusive and nasty. At its best, it must be an inspiring arena to play in. Other times, it must be terrifying.
Of the top nine in the Premiership this season Hearts ranked eighth in terms of points won at home and ninth in terms of goals scored at home. That's a statistical reflection of the angst on Gorgie for much of the season.
In the maelstrom of bad days, elements of the support have gone after Levein in a big way. "I don't know how he has the stamina to cope with it," says Budge. "Going back to the first meetings I had with him five years ago one of the things I really liked about him was his openness and his honesty.
"He said, 'you do realise, Ann, that there are some people who will never accept me'. There are a few supporters who will never be happy. We could win the league and the cup, we could do the treble and they would still say Craig Levein is the wrong man for the job. That's built up over all the years he's been here. Not everyone likes his style of football, not everyone likes the way he sets up the team, but there are even more supporters who are happy to give him a chance and thank him for everything he has done and is doing.
"The criticism is not pleasant. I've had some of it. Never outside of the stadium, but inside the ground, when the result goes against us I've had the supporters turn and stare and point and shout, 'what are you doing about this?!' It's not as vitriolic as it is with Craig, so he deserves a lot of credit for dealing with it.
"He's been in football so long and knows how volatile supporters can be and how they can change at the flick of a switch. We've all seen it. One minute they're singing his name and the next they're yelling for his head. I might be speaking to supporters after a disappointing result and I say, 'who do you think is the most unhappy person today? It's not you, it's the players, but above all others, it's Craig'. That's why I say that if we managed to win on Saturday he'll be the first person on my mind."
Quiet summer at Tynecastle
Budge says Hearts won't do a lot of business in the summer. The Naismith deal will get done - his importance to the team is off the scale - but it doesn't sound like there's going to be a mad flurry of activity at Tynecastle. "I don't think there needs to be a lot of movement," says Budge. "Are we happy with sixth in the league? Absolutely not. Is it devastating? No, but we're striving for better next season."
By the end of next season the supporters will have paid her back the money she lent the club to get it out of administration and things will change at that point. She's not thinking of going anywhere, but she's also conscious that she's not getting any younger. Succession planning is one of her biggest tasks now.
"As we sit here today I'm the owner, the chairman and the chief exec," she says. "It's a seven-day-a-week job. I have a life outside, but I don't see it very often. I can't carry on like that. When I'm no longer the majority shareholder then things will change.
"Should I seek to continue as chairman of the board and somebody else takes over as chief exec? It's all about maintaining stability. I don't want to cut ties, I know that. Until external influences dictate otherwise I'll carry on doing what I can for Hearts."
At the club awards night a few weeks ago somebody showed her a photograph of her holding the Championship trophy that Hearts won back in 2015. She still remembered the thrill like it was yesterday. She believed that nothing would top that moment for pure joy. She now knows that something would. An against-all-odds victory would make her reassess her understanding of happiness.
Watch a Scottish Cup final preview Sportscene on the BBC Scotland channel on Friday at 19:00 BST