End of season update from Ann Budge.
1. Introductory Remarks
As I write this update, over 15 months have passed since we all read the headlines: “Coronavirus: Scottish football suspended indefinitely”. The only thing we knew for sure at that time was that we had no idea what lay ahead.
Well… we now know that the pandemic brought with it challenges of unimagined proportions for businesses, communities, families, and individuals all across the globe. However, in recent weeks, the roll-out of the vaccination programme has given many of us hope that we will indeed get through this and are getting close to being able to plan for a brighter future.
Since taking over the reins seven years ago, we have consistently stated the vital importance of taking a long-term and strategic view of developing our Club for the future. At times, circumstances have forced us to focus more heavily on the short-term in order to ride out a particular storm….as indeed, has been perfectly demonstrated by the pandemic and the implications this brought for the Club. However, we have successfully come through this enormously difficult period and I am delighted to say that once again we can focus on our long-term goal to improve standards across every aspect of our business.
Football clubs sit at the very heart of their communities as has never been more apparent than over the last 15 months. They have an enormously important role to play. We can hold our heads high in terms of the way we have continued to support our local community through these troubled times. Our staff and our volunteers have been amazing. This work will continue and will go from strength to strength over the coming years as we continue to put our community and our supporters at the heart of everything we do.
We all recognise that fans are the life blood of any football club. We all know the importance of looking after our supporters, who if treated with respect, will in all likelihood remain supporters for life. Our objective in this regard must be to provide ever-improved facilities and an ever-improved match-day experience for our supporters, both on and off the field.
This has been very difficult over the last season, with no fans allowed into games. To help you continue to engage with the Club during the restrictions, we invested in our in-house media operations to allow us to bring you as much coverage and as much high-quality content as possible. That investment will continue for as long as attendance at Tynecastle is restricted.
It goes without saying that we are all as desperate as you are to see you, in your numbers, back in the stadium. Given that we still don’t know when that will be allowed, we have held off putting season tickets on sale for next season. Our plan is to leave the launch until the last week in May in the hope that we may have some further clarity by then. That said, we have a full campaign ready to go and I am confident that you will appreciate the range and flexibility that we have built into our offerings. Our aim is to thank you for your on-going support, to honour previous guarantees and to recognise that circumstances have not only been difficult for the Club but also for many of our supporters. We want to ensure that all of those who want to continue to support our Club, despite difficult times, will be able to do so now and in the future.
Where were we when Covid struck? Many of you will remember that early in Season 2019/20, we had set out plans for the continued improvement of our Club. The plans included some major new appointments. In December 2019, we had brought in a new first team manager, Daniel Stendel, with the stated aim of playing an exciting, attacking style of football. In January, 2020, we had brought in a new Head of Performance, Bob McCunn, to guide our investment in our medical, physio and strength and conditioning departments. We had announced our intention to bring in a new Sporting Director to lead an improvement programme across all aspects of our backroom operation. This was to include our Scouting and Recruitment Department and our Academy operation and was to be focused on driving up standards in both the Men’s and the Women’s game. Hand-in-hand with this, we had also announced our intention to strengthen the Board and to bring in a new Chief Executive Officer (CEO). All of these planned changes were scheduled to be in place ahead of the transfer of the majority shareholding from Bidco to the Foundation of Hearts.
Changes were already well underway when Covid hit. Confronted with lockdown, everything had to be put on hold and/or slowed down while we addressed the immediate and far-reaching impact of the pandemic. This disruption cost us time. The cancellation of football leading to our demotion to the Championship forced other changes. Daniel Stendel left after only 6 months. Robbie Neilson rejoined us in June 2020 with the very clear objective of getting us back up to the Premiership and preparing us to compete successfully again in the top division. Over the summer, we pressed ahead with the recruitment of a new CEO and Andrew McKinlay joined us in August, 2020. We then turned our attention once again to the task of recruiting a Sporting Director. In the interim, Jim Jefferies was brought in to assist Robbie during the summer transfer window, and to assist the Board in establishing priorities for our Football Operational Review. Joe Savage was appointed and joined us in January 2021, some 9 months later than originally planned.
In short, despite dealing with the unprecedented difficulties caused by the global pandemic, we continued to work tirelessly on our long-term plan. This work continues as outlined below.
2. Short-term plans
After a hand-over period, made more difficult than usual by most of our staff either being furloughed or working from home and most of our operations being in lockdown, I am delighted to confirm that Andrew McKinlay, our CEO, has picked up the challenges brilliantly and is now fully in charge of running all aspects of the Club on a day-to-day basis.
For my part, I am now wholly focused on my role as Chairman, and in that capacity, I am delighted to announce that we will be further strengthening the Board when James Anderson joins us as an independent, non-executive director on 1st July 2021. James is well known within Scottish football, having already significantly helped clubs at all levels to cope with the impact of the pandemic on their clubs and their communities. Hearts is incredibly fortunate to have James’ continued support. The value of his business acumen and his advice in driving forward the long-term ambitions of the Club cannot be over-stated.
Current Backroom Focus
In the short time that Joe has been with us, he has already implemented changes on the scouting and recruitment front and is pro-actively recruiting new staff to support our plans, including appointing a new Recruitment Analyst, who will join us early in June. Implementing improvements in this area is one of Joe’s key objectives in readiness for what will undoubtedly be a busy summer transfer window.
Joe is also working closely with Roger Arnott on the Academy front, with Andy Kirk on women’s football and with John Rankin on the U18’s. With robust plans in place for next season a number of new roles have been identified to strengthen and improve our operations in these areas. Our commitment to youth and to the women’s game remains as strong as ever.
The Board is in no doubt about the need for us, in common with many other Clubs, to build on youth, both “home-grown” via our Academy and via the transfer market. In his previous positions, Joe has focused on recruitment of young professionals with growth potential and we are confident that we will benefit from that experience.
Current First Team focus
Our principal objective for the 2020/21 season was, of course, to achieve promotion back to the Premiership. We led the Championship from very early on and finished 12 points ahead of our closest rival to win the title. It was never going to be easy, was not always pretty and some performances were frustrating and disappointing. However, we achieved our main goal and Robbie, the coaching staff, the backroom staff and all the players deserve our huge thanks for getting us back to where we belong.
We were also very much hoping for a repeat of last season’s strong run in cup competitions. Clearly, we all know that this was not to be. This was bitterly disappointing not only for the supporters, but for all concerned. We obviously aim to put this behind us and get back to winning ways in the cup competitions next season.
Another key priority for this season was to bring in new players with the skills and character to be able to compete successfully at Premiership level. We have by-in-large stuck to that plan, other than where injury has forced us to make some short-term decisions.
A number of our current players are out of contract in the summer. While some have been offered new contracts and have accepted, others have decided to move on. There is nothing more that the Club can do in these situations as the final decision always lies with the player. We wish all of those who will not be with us the very best of luck and they leave with our thanks for their contributions over this extremely difficult period.
Our recruitment plan is based on having a reduced squad size with a heavy focus on youth. Some of our young development players will feature in the squad next season while others will go out on loan to get them ready for the season beyond. There will, of course, be some new faces. Joe is working closely with Robbie to ensure rigorous due diligence is carried out in identifying potential candidates.
In short, the Board urges supporters to remember that we embarked upon a major change programme some 18 months ago. Covid has both disrupted and slowed down this programme but our priorities remain clear. We will continue to focus on improving standards across every element of the Club.
As everyone knows, it is not only football operations that have been disrupted but every other aspect of our business.
Our hospitality business has, of course, been heavily impacted with the closure of bars, restaurants and events. However, our hospitality management team worked continuously to make best use of the forced down-time to ensure we were fully prepared for opening as soon as allowed. Look out for the improvements in our bar and suites! You cannot fail to recognise the improvements, most of which have been carried out in-house by our fantastic staff. Both the bar and the restaurant are back in business following the easing of restrictions, and we look forward to welcoming you back.
Our retail operation has continued to develop despite the Covid-19 restrictions closing them down. Thanks to your support and their hard work, our successful online operation has meant we have managed to stay pretty much on budget for this year.
A big date in the retail calendar is always the launch of next season’s kit. Lots of hard work has gone into trying to ensure we can start launching our new strips from June onwards. While the current situation with the pandemic may yet impact delivery dates, we are doing everything in our power to ensure we have a launch to remember.
News Flash! I am delighted to be able to announce that we have a new commercial shirt sponsor and will therefore have a new name gracing the front of our shirt for next season. I have absolutely no doubt that you will be blown away by what our sponsorship team have achieved. Once again, our staff deserve huge credit for securing this deal in the current climate. Look out for the announcements and don’t forget, the shop is once again open for business!
Let me say a huge thank you to those suppliers, advertisers and business partners, who continued to support us throughout this season despite there being no fans in the stadium. Our staff did an amazing job in providing and promoting a range of “virtual“ sponsorship packages, albeit via zoom calls, on matchdays. A special mention must go to Gary Locke and Mark Martin who hosted most of these sessions on behalf of the Club. The whole team has done a great job!
Although fans have not been allowed in the stadium over the last year, our facilities team has worked throughout to ensure we are in the best possible shape to welcome fans back to Tynecastle, when restrictions are lifted.
Despite having to manage cash more tightly than ever, we are carrying out a number of sizeable infrastructure projects over the summer closedown period. These include the essential replacement of our floodlights, the long overdue repainting of the trusses in each of our three older stands and a full pitch refurbishment. We have almost £400k worth of essential and preventative work to be carried out before the start of next season.
On top of this, we are also implementing some new concourse facilities/ improvements to welcome you back. Hopefully, you will approve!
3. Financial Performance and Outlook
Given everything that was going on in the world last summer, the Board agreed a Financial Plan for Year 20/21 which would see a significant drop in revenue resulting in a financial loss across the year. This was inevitable in a climate where lock-down constraints and the absence of fans would have a devastating impact on all of our income streams.
Our assumptions when that plan was put together were very conservative. However, with no fans at all in Tynecastle this year, coupled with a second extended lock-down, the impact of Covid has been even greater than expected.
The overall impact of this was lessened somewhat by winning the delayed semi-final of last year’s Scottish Cup only to lose out so narrowly in the final. Notwithstanding this boost, however, we expect our operational income to be over £1million down on our already much-reduced financial plan.
The good news is that our other sources of Income, namely grants and donations, paint a more positive picture. Thanks to the never-ending support from our fans, via the Foundation of Hearts, our donations income is ahead of expectation. Given the constraints being faced by everyone, this is nothing short of astonishing and once again, we can only express our enormous gratitude to our supporters.
In addition, we have benefited from the unexpected/unbudgeted Scottish Government Covid Grant of £500K and indeed the grant so generously donated by James Anderson, via the SPFL Trust, to help all clubs cope with covid issues, including testing.
In short, while this has been an even more difficult year in business terms than we anticipated with the continued support of our management, staff, sponsors and fans, we are coping well.
The fans have continued to get right behind us over this difficult period, supporting our various hospitality initiatives, when we were able to open; our on-line retail operation; our streaming and pay-per-view offerings; even our zoom-based sponsorship packages. We will continue to come up with initiatives and ways in which you can continue to support us over the coming months and I thank you in advance for doing so.
4. To conclude….
Supporters back at Tynecastle
Sadly, we are still not able to answer the big question on everyone’s mind.
“When will fans be allowed back to watch live games at Tynecastle?”
While we have good reason to believe the situation will improve next season, we must be realistic enough to accept that it will undoubtedly be some time before we get back to anything approaching normality.
For that reason, it has, of course, been very difficult to give you detailed information on what our season ticket options will be for next year. As stated in my introduction, our focus has been on how we can make next season as easy as possible, financially, for our fans. We are acutely aware that many supporters, as well as our various business partners, may themselves be facing financial challenges.
We will offer fans options. We will freeze prices. We will honour all promises made to date. We will put a system in place to hold seats for long-standing season ticket holders, where circumstances make it difficult for them to renew.
We are delighted that it has been confirmed that we will be able to offer streaming and pay-per-view again next season as this will allow us to be even more flexible with our offerings.
In summary, we have delayed season ticket announcements for as long as we can to give us as much certainty as possible over what we can actually deliver to supporters. Announcements will be made very shortly.
We are facing a year of transition
We are on the cusp of becoming the largest fan-owned football club in the UK. What a magnificent achievement! As has been said many times, we are working hard to complete everything associated with the legal transfer of majority ownership and barring any unexpected legal hiccups, the transfer will take place this summer.
We will announce the actual transfer date as soon as we are in a position to do so. We will then announce plans for celebrating one of the most momentous occasions in the Club’s history.
However, I want to issue a word of caution by repeating what I have said on many occasions over the last seven years.
It is apparent from recent communications and indeed headlines, that there is still a lack of understanding amongst some supporters and indeed, some football pundits, regarding what this will mean for day-to-day decision making.
In terms of operational decision-making, Hearts’ supporters will have no more rights than supporters of any other club. We all know that a club does not have to be fan owned for supporters to make their views known. That will not change.
The Club must continue to be run and decisions must be taken, by a professional Board of Directors, taking everything into account and in accordance with an agreed long-term strategy. If the shareholders are unhappy with the performance of the Board, they will have the power to make that known at the AGM in terms of how votes are cast via the Foundation of Hearts. In every other sense, nothing will change.
Failure to grasp this fundamental principle, is in part what has caused fan ownership to fail at other clubs.
The past two seasons have been extraordinarily difficult for all of us for so many reasons. However, we have successfully navigated our way through this period and have so much to be proud of. Despite everything that has gone on, our foundations are secure.
I know that fans, understandably, focus on on-field performances and that concerns have been expressed around our recent style of play and what that might mean for our ability to perform successfully on our return to the Premiership. Please be assured that the Board and the management team are fully aware of these concerns. We have done what was needed to be done to get back to where we belong and we will do everything in our power to ensure a successful return next season and beyond. We are wholly bought in to building a football squad that will see our youngsters playing the kind of entertaining football our supporters deserve to enjoy.
In short, our Club is in good shape. We have a great deal to be proud of and a great deal to look forward to. The Club has changed enormously in the last few years and that change programme will continue. We have come so far but we still have a long way to go. Let us continue to stick together and see this period in the Club’s history through to a successful conclusion. The European football landscape is changing and we fully intend to play a major role in what comes next.