Now clear of administration, new Hearts owner Ann Budge has wasted no time in executing against her plans to shake up the troubled Edinburgh club. In a sensational two days, Budge has released manager Gary Locke, his assistant Billy Brown and goalkeeping coach Alan Combe from their duties whilst telling the clubs three most experienced players – Jamie Hamill, Ryan Stevenson and Jamie MacDonald that their services are no longer required. Under 20’s coach Robbie Neilson has been promoted to first team coach with former Scotland and Hearts boss Craig Levein brought in by Budge as Director of Football to oversea all footballing matters. For Locke, who spent nine years as a player at Hearts before returning as manager in 2013, it’s a bitter blow after what has been a heartbreaking season. After entering administration last summer, Hearts were hit with a transfer embargo and given a 15 points deduction at the start of this season making survival almost impossible. Under Locke, Hearts put up a brave show but a run of 10 games without a win starting in late November along with the existing points deduction, proved too much for Hearts who now face up to life in the Scottish Championship following relegation.
It has been a mixed bag for Hearts fans who will be delighted to see the back of former owner Lithuanian multi-millionaire Vladimir Romanov, whose promises of turning Hearts into a Scottish superpower fell short almost from day one. His volatile nature and mishandling of the clubs debts slowly plunged the club deeper and deeper towards administration until eventually, now bored of his play thing, Romanov left without a goodbye or offering an apology. Much like former Rangers owner Craig Whyte, Romanov used Hearts for his own gain with no intention of helping the club to regain its footing. As the club scrambled to stay alive, self made millionaire and Hearts fan Ann Budge started to craft a plan to take over the troubled club and restore it to its former glory as one of Scotland’s biggest teams. Having finally concluded her purchase of Hearts, Budge is now executing on stage two of her plan which involves making Hearts a more economical and financially stable club.
The departures of Hamill, Stevenson and MacDonald are not necessarily a reflection of their capabilities nor the clubs desire to retain them, it’s purely down to the money and the need for Hearts to start again. The appointment of Neilson, a man who has bled maroon for more than a decade, is an indication that Budge and Levein want to focus on youth going forward. Promoting the man who has been running the youth team makes perfect sense as Neilson will have a deep knowledge about both the players coming through as well as a majority of the first team squad like Brad McKay, Jamie Walker, Callum Tapping, Kevin McHattie and Callum Paterson who have all been promoted recently from the Hearts youth system. Levein will be tasked by Budge to use his experience in helping Neilson rebuild the Hearts team from the ground up, focusing on blending younger players with any new acquisitions, whilst sticking to a tight wage structure. The timing of the moves gives the new management duo enough time to plan for next season with a view to challenging for promotion back to Scotland’s top league.
Returning to the Premiership will not be a simple task for Neilson and Levein to mastermind given that challenge that the Championship presents next season. Alongside an ever improving Falkirk side and a rejuvenated Queen of the South, Hearts will face Rangers who after successive promotions are racing back up the leagues with the Premiership its final destination. There is also a strong possibility that Hearts may have to play an Edinburgh derby next season with neighbours and arch rivals Hibernian facing a two legged relegation playoff against either Hamilton or Falkirk. Given Hibs poor form towards the end of the season, it is not unforeseeable that they too could drop into the Championship making it one of the toughest leagues to gain promotion from next season. For Hearts, a new era is starting but the road to recovery after major surgery is a long and treacherous one. The only solace that Hearts fans can take is that their club is now in safe hands and on the right path once more. Patience will be key as well as belief that someday Hearts will climb back into the Premiership and retake their position as one of the dominant forces in Scottish football.