New FoH chairman aims to continue transformation of Hearts

Stuart Wallace is a finance expert and comes from a family of Hearts supporters. Pic: Neil Hanna
Stuart Wallace is a finance expert and comes from a family of Hearts supporters. Pic: Neil Hanna
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Standing inside Tynecastle watching the new main stand truss rise into place, Stuart Wallace felt hairs spring on the back of his neck. He then ducked into the Gorgie Suite and was unanimously voted in as Foundation of Hearts chairman. It was the ultimate fairytale night for a childhood Hearts supporter.

The new FoH figurehead is a partner at the leading finance experts PricewaterhouseCoopers. Numbers are his thing, from income tax to the monthly pledges with which Hearts fans are propping up their club. Wallace is also a football man with steadfast belief in the collective power of supporters.

It is now his task to drive the Foundation forward, maintain and, if possible, increase the number of cash pledges beyond the 8000 mark. The fan-led group have now handed more than £5million of money over to Tynecastle officials in less than three years. They must raise another £4m to gain control of Hearts owner Ann Budge’s 75.1 per cent shareholding by 2020.

Wallace takes over from previous chairman Brian Cormack with a clear plan, plus the tenacity and brainpower to execute it. Yet he is more than an efficient accountant in a suit. He is a family man and a Hearts man who feels the emotions like any other Tynecastle regular.

Last Thursday night, prior to the Foundation’s AGM, they were more apparent than ever. “It was a goosebump moment,” recalled Wallace.

“We were all standing there with some of the Hearts board and some pledgers. The workmen were climbing the floodlights and then, all of a sudden, you saw the new truss start to rise up behind the main stand. Somebody said it was like a beautiful moon rising – just as 96 tonnes of steel came up over the roof. It just dwarfed the old stand.

“We had waited so long and we were so nearly forced away from Tynecastle, which none of the fans wanted. Seeing this start to happen, you know it’s the final piece of the jigsaw. One of the Foundation hashtags is #WeStayWeBuild. That was the moment you realised the pledges helped achieve that.

“Then we went inside to the Gorgie Suite and I was surprised by how nervous and emotional I was. I realised we’d got to the voting part after all the business. My dad was sat right behind me. He’s a pledger and a Gorgie man through and through. I just put my head down wondering what was to happen.

“I’m told it was a unanimous vote. You get a lot of things in the business world where you’re put in really tough situations but there were real butterflies in my stomach. I’m really honoured, emotional and excited to take this on. The position of FoH chairman should be an honour for any fan.”

Wallace seems the ideal candidate. He has suffered the lows and celebrated the highs across five decades following Hearts. He understands the depth of feeling and wants to help his club reach the next level. “Hearts is one of Scotland’s biggest clubs so it has to be ambitious,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate that I’ve seen Hearts compete for the odd league championship. I’ve seen us win three cups but I was 34 before I saw us with silverware. There have been barren times. Hearts have to be at the top challenging all the time.

“My sister and I stood on the terrace at Dens Park that day in ’86. Everybody says they were there but I was definitely there. I went up to Dens with not a doubt in my mind we were going to win the league. We were a damaged generation of Hearts supporters because we got so close. We lost the Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen the next week.

“The fans were so nervous in that period. We went to so many cup semi-finals – we twice got knocked out by Airdrie. If somebody offered me a season like 1986 again, I’d take it in a heartbeat. It was heartbreaking to lose it with seven minutes to go. However, if you told me Hearts would be challenging at the top of the league and it might be a slightly different outcome this year, I’d snap your hand off for that chance.

“We split the Old Firm in 1998 and that’s the next natural step. Rangers aren’t what they were so can we split the Old Firm again? Hearts has to be a club competing right at the top. There’s a next level to Hearts and the job of the Foundation is to help the club achieve it.”

The fanbase Wallace now represents is crucial to that process. Collective public goodwill has been harnessed by the Foundation into Britain’s strongest football fan movement. “Look at the dark days three or four years ago, with administration. Tommy Walker is often quoted saying: ‘We don’t have supporters, we have the heart and soul of Edinburgh.’ That’s true but what he said after that isn’t often quoted. He said: ‘This is a dynasty that will live forever.’ That’s really poignant.

“When the chips were right down, the Hearts supporters refused to let it [the club dying] happen. They all stepped forward with cake sales, jumble sales and so many other fundraising events before the Foundation went public. Getting people pledging money has brought the club back from administration and a potential liquidation, with Ann Budge’s help of course.

“There’s now an excitement as the stand starts getting built. Supporters’ money has put that in place. The line I used in my election was: ‘Ask yourself how big are your dreams as a supporter movement?’ Do we want to say that’s it? Do we just want that stand built and be a mid-table team, or do we realise we’ve caught hold of something special here and continue to progress? Fans can tell us what new ideas they have and the football club builds and builds from there. That’s the dream we want to happen.”

Wallace’s first engagement with the Foundation was right at the organisation’s inception in 2012. He never imagined that a chance phonecall to Alex Mackie, an FoH founding member, would lead to a role as chairman. “When the previous ownership was unfolding at Hearts and the original Foundation guys went public, the club was on the brink of administration,” he recalled. “I saw what was happening with my business and tax background so I basically lifted the phone to Alex Mackie. I said: ‘Make sure you structure this thing robustly.’ Hearts became a media circus in the end and I believed that, if you’re going to do something like this with supporters’ and their cash, it has to stand up and survive the test of time. It had to be done properly and uphold the Hearts brand, not undermine it. It was actually a really quick phonecall and Alex and I still have a laugh about it. I ended up helping with pledges to make sure it was all structured properly and stood up to scrutiny.

“Later, I became involved with the club a bit, giving them some advice surrounding the Save The Children partnership. I’ve never pushed to be involved. I’ve always said I’m here to help and to call if you need me.”

A small drop-off in monthly fan pledges has occurred recently with Hearts now stable and financially secure. Work on the new £12m main stand is progressing, nine new signings arrived last month and there is the matter of a Scottish Cup Edinburgh derby with Hibs on Sunday. Wallace is at pains to reiterate that every single monthly pledge remains vital.

“It’s very marginal drop-off in pledges. There is a healthy stream of new pledgers but some people drop off due to financial circumstances. We’ve always said pledge what you can afford. Just now, the numbers are just above 7900. I think there was a point when the numbers were at 8100, so it’s pretty consistent. We’ve come through a period when drop-offs have slightly outweighed new pledgers.

“We have new incentives coming. For example, anybody who nominates someone else to join will be entered into a competition to win the plot of grass on which Rudi Skacel scored his first goal against Hibs. Architects and everything have been involved to measure it but we’ve now got a glass cube with that patch of turf inside. There’s also the patch where Takis Fyssas sang: ‘Champions League, la, la la.’ People will get a place in the raffle for these prizes.

“I’d really like to get supporters on a lower or middle income involved with the Foundation. Join for a one-off fee or a small monthly amount, we need to grow ideas like that.”

Wallace’s plans may seem small-fry compared to that imposing truss, but he is every bit as steely in his desire to build on existing foundations.