Insight into Tynecastle board atmosphere and Foundation finances as Hearts owners look for improvement
Conversations with Gerry Mallon, the Foundation of Hearts chairman, delve into the boardroom atmosphere at Tynecastle Park. It is described as warm and welcoming by a man who knows hostility when he sees it. “I’ve been in plenty of football boardrooms that are like men’s clubs. This feels like an extended family,” he says.
Foundation pledger numbers sit just below 8,800, which is almost exactly the same as last year when the group gained ownership of Heart of Midlothian on behalf of supporters. Mallon isn’t in this to tread water, though. A former Irish Football Association chairman, he wants constant improvement. Even the friendly Hearts directors will be asked to make subtle changes if necessary.
That will be determined by results of a members’ survey conducted by FoH. Hearts’ finances and on-field performance impressed many over the last year and Mallon is now looking at what might be termed ‘finer details’. He joined the Foundation board last December, ascending to chairman in May and becoming a club director at the same time. Anything he can do to improve the experience for fans donating hard-earned cash is worth doing.
“I’m amazed and delighted by the pledger numbers right now when you consider the cost-of-living pressures on people at the moment. Then there’s the expense of being a Hearts supporter over the last few months, especially for the people who travelled to away games in Europe. Pints in Zurich are not cheap,” says Mallon.
“The resilience of the support base is incredible. We are consistently donating £140,000 or more to the club each month. The running total is now over £14million. I think the onus is still on the Foundation to find new pledgers and grow our members. We only want people to pledge what they can afford.
“We will continue to reach out the whole Hearts supporter base, reaffirming the importance of being a fan-owned club and why pledges are important to the infrastructure of the club and what is happening on the pitch. I think there’s a direct correlation between what the Foundation is doing and the success we see on the pitch. There is also the really important benefactor support we have from James Anderson.”
Mallon’s young daughters are captivated by other Hearts initiatives, including the club’s women’s team. Dad’s seat among the Tynecastle hierarchy pales into insignificance. “It's been a really amazing learning experience on both boards, understanding how the Foundation works and how the club works. Both organisations have been really welcoming. Hearts is run by really decent people with nothing but the best of intentions for the club’s long-term future. It’s been inspirational for me to see. Everybody is putting the club first in everything they do and that shines through the connection with fans and the Foundation.
“I didn’t expect the atmosphere to be as friendly and welcoming when you go into a board meeting or the directors’ box. There is some strong female representation. I’ve been in plenty of football boardrooms that are like men’s clubs. This feels like an extended family. We are seeing real progress with the club improving commercially, investing in the B team and the women’s team. My own daughters are much more interested in the club because of the women’s team rather than my involvement.”
Next year will be about trying to implement FoH members’ wishes. Mallon acknowledges that the Foundation need more connectivity and PR among Hearts supporters. “I think we have to make the Foundation more visible,” he explains. “I think we have struggled to make our communication with fans really meaningful and relevant. Over the last year, we increased the frequency of emails and updates. Alastair Bruce does a great job with a piece in every matchday programme. However, I think there is still a job for us to do to be really representative of fans’ feelings, to really understand people’s feelings and experiences, and communicate those properly in both directions.
“To do that, we have been running a survey of all pledgers over the last few weeks. It closed on Friday and we have had around 4,700 responses. We are checking data, asking about matchday experience, ticketing issues, stadium experience. We want to take on board whatever is really important to them. From that, we are going to try to drive a fans’ forum – probably a room full of pledgers of diverse age, gender and ethnicity which we hope will be representative of the broader fanbase. That way we can gauge opinions and test ideas on anything relevant.
“I’m conscious that the Foundation board is all men, with the exception of one director. We are all middle-class professional guys of a certain vintage. That isn’t necessarily what you see in the stands every week. So we want to properly reflect what those people think and feel. We also want to build a network of volunteers. We don’t want to be limited to just those on the board and a few volunteers. There is so much more we can unleash by getting support from people who have time and energy to commit. We want to communicate better and reach out to pledgers by being more visible and responsive. There has been good feedback on that. People like Gary Locke and Robert Borthwick have offered to help us.
“Another thing we lack is a way to make kids feel immediately connected. We aren’t thinking kids should be a revenue source for FoH but we need a way for younger supporters to be part of the Foundation and feel like an owner – without putting money in. We need a relevant and meaningful kids’ pledge. Louise Strutt has been working really well on that. We want to make sure Foundation pledgers are not just an older group of fans who remember when the club nearly died. We also want a newer group who realise it’s about owning the club and committing to it.”