SUPPORTERS gaining control of Hearts excites every member of the club’s paying public. Even the prospect of a fans’ representative on the board would be more than welcomed by the majority. Alex Mackie and his Foundation of Hearts have been rebuffed so far, but their basic intention to buy out Vladimir Romanov and run the club in tandem with supporters groups was well received.
Hearts and Mackie are now in discussions with Supporters Direct Scotland, the organisation which helps fans gain influence within clubs. Evidence of their work can be seen at Livingston, Dundee and Stirling Albion and their involvement with the Tynecastle board makes supporters’ representation an evermore realistic prospect at Hearts.
The benefits to having fans influence clubs are fairly obvious, although different clubs follow different models. Ultimately, the aim is to see the public who fund the football have a say in key decisions so that fans are not left feeling like outcasts, as is too often the case in modern-day football.
Should supporters eventually gain control of Hearts, which it must be said remains some way off at the moment, the structure and outlook of the club could change dramatically, particularly at boardroom level.
An example of that change took place in West Lothian around three years ago. When Angelo Massone left Livingston on the brink of receivership in 2009, a rescue plan was formed and a new board implemented to keep the club alive. It was driven partially by fans who wanted a say in how their club was run after seeing Livingston forced into administration twice inside five years – and ultimatley relegated to the Third Division.
The Livingston Supporters’ Trust, Livi For Life, demanded a seat on the new board and shares in return for a moderate investment. As a result, David Stoker was elected as their “supporter director” and is now serving his second two-year term on the board as one of six Livingston directors.
“Livingston were in a similar situation to Hearts,” he explained. “We had an owner where there were difficulties financially. Our Supporters Trust worked on a business plan in the event of the club going into administration, which it subsequently did. At that point we were fortunate there were people willing to invest in the club.
“The Trust also made an agreement to invest in the club, but in return it wanted a place on the board and shares in the club as well. We had a much smaller amount than Hearts fans are able to raise. We agreed to put in £50,000 over three years and for that we got 50,000 shares and a place on the board. We own around six per cent of Livingston.
“I work with the rest of the directors on a day-to-day basis, influencing club policy. I get involved in pretty much everything. That’s where our collective effort got us. The Trust is steadily building up its shareholding as well. The £50,000 has been paid in full now but we’re still keen to help the club with financial support because the club needs the money.
“I’m a big believer in fan ownership and, although we have quite a small shareholding in Livingston, I think the club are better off for it. We have a huge volunteer effort which plays a big part. If you come to Almondvale on a matchday, you will go through a turnstile which is manned by a Trust volunteer, you will buy a programme from a Trust volunteer, one of the safety officers is a Trust volunteer, the guy who does Livi TV coverage on the internet is a Trust volunteer. I’m a volunteer as well.”
Like Stoker, supporters aren’t seeking money for their involvement. All most want is an influence to help ensure their club is run in a sensible fashion. Having been kept in the dark for much of Romanov’s tumultuous tenure, Hearts fans are craving stability and transparency more than anything else at present. No more tax bills, no more winding up orders, no more wage delays. It shouldn’t be too much to ask.
The response to the recent share offer launched to raise funds has been invigorating after Romanov offered 10 per cent of his shareholding back to fans. However, there was no mention of allowing supporters a say in running Hearts.
“The Hearts fans are putting in all this money and getting shares in return, but the amount of influence they are getting is minimal,” continued Stoker. “We were strongly advised by Supporters Direct not to give Livingston money for nothing. Always ask for something in return. Hearts have such a big support with such passion for the club. I’m from Edinburgh and Hearts are part of the fabric of the community. I’d really hate to see them go down the pan.
“It’s really down to supporters to organise themselves, get together and do it. At 99 per cent of football clubs, fans are the biggest investors. That’s through buying season tickets or merchandise or anything else they do that brings income to their club. It’s a case of supporters demanding something back, if indeed they want to.
“In most cases, club owners aren’t going to give supporters a place on the board or a shareholding for no reason. It’s down to the fans to be pro-active. What tends to happen is that a club goes into a financial abyss, so fans step in. I would always recommend supporters head that off at the pass.”
Anyone wishing to unite the varous Hearts supporters’ groups and secure the club’s future must first negotiate a way past Romanov. The Russian businessman has proved notoriously difficult to deal with during his involvement at Tynecastle. However, that director Sergejus Fedotovas is conducting talks with Supporters Direct Scotland indicates they are considering fan involvement. Only last week, Fedotovas said: “For the sake of everyone who wants to see this club doing well, I think supporters are the best investors here. I think that is the future for football because supporters are the ones who really care about their club. It is supporters who really need to be concerned with the life of their football club.”