Hearts: Former Irish FA chief Gerry Mallon explains why he wants to join Foundation of Hearts board
Gerry Mallon, chief executive of Tesco Bank in Edinburgh and a Tynecastle Park season ticket holder, today outlined why he wants to join the FoH hierarchy at their upcoming AGM. He is one of five candidates for three vacancies.
Mallon moved from Northern Ireland to the Capital with his family in 2018 and quickly became transfixed on Hearts along with 20-year-old son, Jude. His six-year chairmanship at the Irish FA ended last year and he is now keen to resume a football-related director role.
He believes he can help the Foundation engage more with Hearts supporters by acting as a conduit between the club and its public. The fan-led group completed a historic takeover in August when Ann Budge transferred her 75.1 per cent shareholding, confirming FoH as Hearts’ owners on behalf of more than 8,000 paying members.
That brings added responsibility for the Foundation and 51-year-old Mallon is confident he can help develop the right strategy for a prosperous future.
He oversaw one of the most successful periods in Northern Ireland’s history when they reached Euro 2016 and were one game away from qualifying for World Cup 2018. Additionally, he persuaded head coach Michael O’Neill to stay in charge in 2018 when the Scottish Football Association tried to lure him to Hampden as Gordon Strachan’s replacement.
Having also overseen the extensive redevelopment of Windsor Park, Mallon is well versed in football governance. Born in Belfast, he was previously University of Ulster chairman and held chief executive positions at both Danske Bank and Ulster Bank.
The Tesco Bank role brought him to Scotland and, having previously paid no attention to football in Scotland, he now considers himself a fully-fledged Jambo.
“I had spent my whole life completely ignoring Scottish football,” Mallon told the Evening News. “If you’re from Northern Ireland, Scottish football means two teams. You get told which one you’re allowed to support. I wasn’t into being told what to do and the whole sectarian nonsense just turns me.
“When we arrived in Edinburgh my son and I decided we had to get off the fence and find a team to support. Hearts had a head-start because of their Northern Ireland connection. I know Austin MacPhee, Kyle Lafferty and Aaron Hughes. Michael Smith, Bobby Burns and Conor Washington were also there.
“We thought we couldn’t ignore that. We started going to a few games and never really looked back. There’s something about the vibe of the club that really caught us. It hasn’t exactly been the most glorious time in Hearts’ history recently.
“When you go along to a game, it feels like a very community-orientated environment. You see grandparents and grandkids so it’s multi-generational. It’s also quite gender-balanced. There are more women than I see at Northern Ireland or Liverpool games. I’ve supported Liverpool since I was seven.
“We started to get caught up in the Hearts atmosphere even though they weren’t winning. It got under our skin. We felt this was a proper, serious club on our doorstep that we could support every week.
“I remember feeling gutted when Daniel Stendel lost his first match as manager. That’s when I realised we’d crossed that threshold as supporters. We got our first season tickets in time to see [Liam] Boycie’s debut against Rangers. We were already sold by that stage.”
The level of captivation grew until Mallon felt compelled to contact Stuart Wallace, Foundation of Hearts chairman, earlier this year. The team had just suffered a humiliating Scottish Cup loss at Highland League Brora Rangers and fans were demanding action.
“After the Brora result, I saw the level of pressure the Foundation members were getting online. There was quite a bit of vitriol. I sent a message to Stuart Wallace, more out of solidarity. I told him to stick with it,” explained Mallon.
“I had seen the same situation when Northern Ireland lost to Luxembourg in 2013 – the worst result in the country’s history. Lots of people said we should get rid of Michael O’Neill and we stuck with him. He turned out to be the best Northern Ireland manager since the 1980s.
“I told Stuart the pressure would ease off and, if I could help, give me a shout. We exchanged dialogue and we picked it up recently with FoH thinking about succession on the board and there being an additional seat [seven instead of six as a result of the Hearts share handover].
“He said there was an opportunity if I would be interested in doing something. I met the Foundation directors to understand where they were. I discussed with them the extent of the reset needed after the share transfer. There is an opportunity to do something different, plus also a requirement and expectation to do so.
“The level of expectation on the FoH board will rise significantly now. There will be a requirement for the board to be really accountable for decisions made around its direction, plus the goals and objectives of the club more broadly.
“There will be a need for the board to be a lot clearer about the future direction and strategy. It’s clear the board members have worked hard and spread themselves thin to run things. I think there’s a need to step up the level of communication, transparency and engagement with Foundation members now.
“The Hearts board need space to run the club for the long term and be free from the more volatile and potentially knee-jerk reaction that we all have on short-term performance matters. FoH can't entirely distance itself because it will be making core voting decisions, but let’s keep the Foundation and its business separate.
“There is an opportunity for the Foundation to provide more of a conduit for dialogue between FoH members and the club. However, the two things need to be kept separate.”
There are now around 8,700 Foundation members – an all-time high – eager to know why they should vote Mallon onto the board. “I’ve asked myself: ‘Do I have the credibility for this role?’ While I’ve got football experience, I don’t have 50 years of Hearts-supporting heritage,” he acknowledged.
“I don’t have stories about my Grandad taking me to games or tales from Basel away in Europe. I feel emotionally deeply committed enough now, like a fan even without the heritage. Maybe there’s an advantage to not being around long enough to annoy lots of people or fall out with anybody.
“I think I understand business, finance and consumer-focused organisations. I’ve got the business skills, corporate governance skills and boardroom skills to know how to shape, direct and run an organisation.
“I think I understand football as well. I get the complications, politics and passions. I know where you need to take perspective and where you need to take action in the game.
“I have the capacity to do this. Tesco is happy to support me in something extra-curricular like this. Although I’m still in a busy executive job, I’ve got enough space to do a board role. I think there is probably a need for the Foundation to step up a little in terms of its resourcing.”
He also would not be averse to a seat on the club board at Tynecastle in future. Two FoH directors, currently Wallace and Donald Cumming, are also Hearts directors to ensure the Foundation have a say on club matters.
“I wouldn’t shy away from that if it was a requirement,” said Mallon. “The core point is to make sure the right skills are on the Foundation board, whether that’s me or anybody else. I do think we need to think about the long-term succession on the board of the football club.
“That’s not a particular ambition I’m seeking for myself. I’ve met all my footballing heroes and sat in positions of authority. While I wouldn’t shy away from it if an important role needed to be done again, it’s not top of my list as something I'm aspiring to.”