Foundation of Hearts approached by eight British clubs including English Premier League side as pledges hit £15m
The fan-led success in Gorgie has captured attention around the country since Heart of Midlothian’s ownership transferred to FoH in 2021. Eight teams from England, Scotland and Wales contacted the Foundation to ask about their structure and how to make fan ownership in football work.
English Premier League side Newcastle United are the highest-profile name on the list, followed by League One Charlton Athletic, plus Hartlepool United, Swindon Town and Newport County from League Two as well as National League side Darlington. In Scotland, Championship club Raith Rovers and League One Falkirk have also been in touch.
More than 8,700 Hearts followers currently pay monthly contributions to the Foundation, which holds a 75.1 per cent shareholding in the Edinburgh club. Pledges began in 2013 and now amount to £1.7m each year [£142,000 per month] in extra income. As of this month, more than £15m has been collected from supporters via direct debit.
“The Foundation constantly gets people wanting to understand our story,” explained Gerry Mallon, Foundation chairman since last summer. “Yes, there is interest from journalists but primarily there are other clubs and fan groups who are really interested in doing something similar. I haven't dealt with them personally because, from my view, I don't have the heritage on this to be able to articulate exactly what happened. Someone like Gary Halliday who has been here since day one can tell them all the circumstances.
“It's a really interesting model. It was born out of a unique set of circumstances. Fan ownership is a phenomenal way for a football club to be able to perpetuate itself. It is beyond the reach of most fan groups to be able to afford to buy the assets of the club. We had a unique set of circumstances: The club going into administration, a benefactor who was prepared to put the money up and take the risk, and then a fan group who got themselves very well organised early on. The relationship between the fan group and Ann Budge actually managed to keep the show on the road. If all those circumstances hadn't come together, we never would be here.”
Breaking through the £15m barrier reinforces fans’ commitment despite the current cost-of-living crisis. “It's a massive milestone. I haven't been in the role for a year yet and I have to say that, with the way the economy was going, I was seriously worried about whether the pledges level was going to hold up,” admitted Mallon. “You could see all the pressures on people's pockets, the cost of living crisis that everyone was absolutely petrified about.
“The cost of following Hearts this season has been expensive, although brilliant occasions. We have been blown away that there have been little or no budging in the continual level of donations. We are constantly around 8,700 pledgers and around £142,000 a month coming in. The feedback we get from pledgers is that, if they are cutting back, the last thing they will cut back on is their FoH donation.
“In our mind was whether there is a risk that pledgers view it as mission accomplished for the Foundation. They saved the club and got it into fan ownership, so what's next? Is it time to think about something else. Everybody has more or less flipped into: 'Now it's about ensuring the success of the club and making sure we do really well on the pitch by giving them a head start against their rivals.'”
The Foundation want to increase the number of pledgers to 10,000 and more if possible. That is a long-term plan alongside objectives to involve children in the group who could then become pledgers when they reach adulthood. Mallon and the rest of the FoH directors are determined not to stand still.
“We set a public target last year to get to 10,000 pledgers because we have never really broken above that 9,000 level,” he said. “I think when we get to that target then it is about getting the next one beyond that and beyond that. It's not so much about the money but the number of pledgers.
“A few years ago, the mantra of the Foundation changed to 'Pledge for Life'. The mentality is, if you are a committed Hearts supporter and if you can afford it, pledge a wee bit to support the club. I think this is going to be our established model for fan ownership. The onus is now on the Foundation to celebrate that and recognise the people who have been on that journey, but also to think about the next stage. That is how we broaden that appeal.
“It's been pretty much the same 8,500-9,000 people since the start and they've been incredibly loyal but we need to think about the next generation. It's not just the people who were around and remember when the club nearly died, it's got to be about the next generation as well and continuing to build this. I don’t see kids as a source of revenue but how do you get the youngest supporters feeling committed to the club and feeling like an owner and feeling like they are part of the heritage of fan ownership?”
A former Irish Football Association chairman, Mallon praised the loyalty of those currently pledging to FoH. “It’s incredible. It tells you the passion and dedication to the club and to the cause, and the belief in what the Foundation are doing,” he said.
“If the Foundation hadn’t achieved all the things it has achieved and these people hadn’t stuck with it all the way through, then we wouldn’t be where we are now. I think we are in the position where we are clearly the third-biggest club in Scotland but where we can perpetuate the advantages of being in that position. There’s talk about trying to close the gap, but I think trying to increase the gap on everyone else is the place for us to start.”