RUSSIAN voices spring to mind whenever people talk of comparisons thanks to the Compare The Meerkat advertising campaign. The irony shouldn’t be lost on Hearts fans right now.
Their club have opened a museum, a memorial garden, qualified for Europe, signed top players, restored financial stability and are about to build a new stand. Compare Hearts now to Hearts under their former Soviet owner, Vladimir Romanov, and there isn’t a search engine in the world who could pair the two up.
In a delightful twist of irony, one of the TV meerkats is even called Sergey – although probably not after Romanov’s Lithuanian assistant, Sergejus Fedotovas, who sat on the Tynecastle board.
The pair scarpered after plunging Hearts into administration in 2013, leaving Bryan Jackson, Foundation of Hearts and, eventually, Ann Budge to piece a broken institution back together. Their combined work in just over two years has transformed the club to the point where it is unrecognisable from the Romanov era. More than 8,000 fans provide funding through the Foundation, which will eventually take ownership from Budge.
Perhaps the opening of Tynecastle’s first ever official museum last month is a pertinent event for comparison. It certainly struck a chord with the Foundation chairman, Brian Cormack.
“I remember when we first started talking to Sergejus Fedotovas years ago, we mentioned having a museum. Alex Mackie spoke about it and they laughed. They said it would never work, museums lose money for football clubs and just laughed it out of the room,” revealed Cormack.
“Ann, when she opened the museum recently, mentioned about the old police cell where all the Hearts memorabilia was held. Fans need to see all that stuff. The way it’s come about is fantastic. That sums up how different Hearts are now compared to three or four years ago. It’s night and day, really.
“Businesses in Edinburgh were driven away from Hearts by the attitude of the previous owners. Now, Ann is trying to portray the club as a community club first, but also one which is open for business.
“We’re trying to encourage local businesses and large businesses in Edinburgh to come and sponsor Hearts and be involved. Everyone can see what type of club it is now.”
The community vibe has returned around Gorgie as Budge and the Foundation have taken the club back to their roots.
“I think that’s what the fans want: the original Hearts, the way it used to run. I just think it makes sense,” continued Cormack. “The club serves the community, more of the community become Hearts fans, it’s circular. Money comes into the club but there’s no profit made by the club as such. It’s all reinvested in the club, which then assists the community.”
The 8000 Foundation members continue to play their part.
“We’ve maintained 8,000 pledgers, which brings in £130,000 a month. We’ve lost some but we’ve also gained some. The fans’ commitment has been unbelievable. Obviously, we’d like to get more but we’re very grateful for that support of our five-year plan with Ann in charge at Hearts.
“The first two years were meant to see us provide working capital, and then we were to start paying Ann back. Our members voted to put the money towards the stand instead of paying Ann back. That’s a really big thing. It was the first real test for fan ownership at Hearts. Nearly 99 per cent of the Foundation members voted for the change in that agreement.
“Something like this could happen again in the future. When funds need raised, fans will need to step up. For that two-year period while we’re funding the stand, Ann has waived any interest on what she is owed. That’s her contribution towards the stand.”
As a result, Budge’s five-year plan is now likely to conclude sometime in 2020 rather than 2019. “There’s a two-year period where the Foundation funds the stand – or when we reach £3million, whatever comes sooner. After that, we start repaying Ann. Because there’s more money coming in, it may only delay the handover by six or eight months. That’s provided funding levels stay high.”
The key for the Foundation is keeping Hearts fans engaged. Their support and cash will be needed for evermore. The public response is encouraging.
“All the feedback I’ve had has been positive,” said Cormack. “Everyone seems happy with how the club and the Foundation are being run. Different clubs have different fan groups and that was the same with Hearts. We all came together for the one goal and I think that’s continued since then. Everybody is working for the same common goal.
“People like the Foundation’s fan reward scheme. Fans are contacting us about when they will get their plot on the pitch, there’s the Foundation tribute shirt etc. These things were set up to keep fans involved but also to give them something tangible which money couldn’t buy; something you only got through supporting Foundation of Hearts and the club.
“The museum has just opened and, in time, will include an interactive screen. Videos taken at plot ceremonies will be shown on that so, in years to come, you can look back at your dad or grandad during his moment on the pitch. All of these things tie people in emotionally.
“Something we have coming up is Pledge Pals. Everyone knows a mate somewhere who isn’t pledging to the Foundation, so if you can get him or her to pledge then there are some unbelievable gifts.”
Gifts to fans for supporting Hearts? Romanov and Fedotovas would consider that more absurd than talking meerkats.
• Tomorrow: The Foundation’s plan for Hearts’ future