As directors survey their initial days as football club owners, they take stock surrounded by an abundance of satisfaction, a pile of emails, extra pledges, Edinburgh-derby excitement, plus the overwhelming feeling that it was all worth it.
Ann Budge gifted her majority shareholding in Heart of Midlothian FC to the fan-led Foundation last Monday which sparked a flurry of activity through the group’s website. Some sceptical observers have been forced to accept that FoH is indeed the club’s future.
Chairman Stuart Wallace and his board are now custodians on behalf of supporters. It is a serious responsibility, highlighted by the contrast in messages sent now compared to just six months ago.
Wallace endured sharp criticism on social media with fans demanding action following Hearts’ humiliating Scottish Cup exit at Brora Rangers in March. He didn’t react. Now the Foundation are regarded as heroes for completing the biggest supporter-led takeover in British football history.
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“Does it make it worthwhile? Yeah, it does,” Wallace told the Evening News. “We were getting a lot of heat back then, understandably, and we needed to have rhino skin to let it wash off. As an individual, I accept that I’m privy to facts no-one else is. That makes it difficult because I can’t share that extra information.
Learned a lot
“It means you are better informed about the club’s plans so you need to basically keep your head down and stick with it. Then you get to times like this where we’ve had such a great start to the season, the share transfer has gone through and the fans now own Hearts.
“Everybody is flying and they deserve to enjoy it. Football says it will come round again at some point but we learned a lot last time. You keep focused and push through it.”
Timing is as vital off the field as on it in modern football. The Foundation’s ownership movement reached a climax at the perfect moment last week. Hearts first ever fixture as a fan-owned club will be a top-of-the-table meeting with city rivals Hibs at Tynecastle Park this Sunday.
“Everybody is delighted with the timing since we are joint-top of the league and the first game is an Edinburgh derby at home to Hibs – a huge match in front of a near-capacity crowd and Sky Sports,” said Wallace.
“I think it will get even more coverage with the club going into fan ownership. It’s all set up for a great day. It’s a while since Hearts have won an Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle but both teams will be fired up for this one. Maybe the Hibs guys have been watching the publicity over this side.
“The fans have taken the club into fan ownership and they are the real heroes of the hour. The folk putting their £10 a month in deserve this and they deserve a win on Sunday, so let’s see if it comes.”
Regardless of the result and whatever success may come Hearts’ way as a fan-owned club, FoH still have plenty work to do. Wallace isn’t reclining on his sofa and nor should supporters if they want their team to thrive during this new era.
“There would have been a niggle about whether an element of people would think ‘job done’ after the handover,” admitted Wallace. “I always thought we had a strong core who understood the ‘pledge for life’ message.
Never too late to join
“I had a few people write to me saying: ‘I’m really sorry, I feel bad that I haven’t joined, part of me didn’t think it was going to work, that you wouldn’t get ownership, is it too late for me to join?’
“I went back and said it’s never too late and they are welcome. If they join now they will get their name on the tunnel wall because that vinyl is being redone soon. Some other people are asking how to pledge on behalf of their son or daughter.
“We have enjoyed a surge in numbers since ownership changed so everyone seems to be sticking with it. That’s really important.”
Those messages and interactions are a huge part of the buzz. They convey a sense of thanks and gratitude while also demonstrating an appetite for more pledgers to get involved with this movement. It is already quite a story, and the feeling is that the book has only just been opened.
Fans who remember the dark days of administration at Tynecastle can now revel in the fact they can shape Hearts’ future. The Foundation’s membership has swelled beyond the 8,000 mark again and could reach a record high with more initiatives on the way.
“I see people putting ‘part-owner of a football club’ on their Twitter bio,” said Wallace. “Some people have said it’s great to be pledging because they see the benefactors are in as well. People like James Anderson, who has put very material amounts of money into the club, are in alongside them.
“The most common message we’ve had has been people writing in saying: ‘Fantastic achievement, well done to all of you and everybody involved throughout the journey.’
“Everybody realises we are here now but this goes all the way back to Save Our Hearts, people like Gary Mackay, Ian Murray, all the fan groups like the Hearts Shareholders’ Association, the Federation of Hearts Supporters Clubs, the Supporters’ Trust and a number of others.
“People are writing in commenting that lots of people played a part and it has created this massive feelgood factor.”