Stuart Wallace – From Third Lanark fears to the largest fan-owned club in the UK
Foundation of Hearts (FoH) Chairman Stuart Wallace met the media to reflect on a momentous day for Heart of Midlothian Football Club. Jamie McIntosh reports.
Ann Budge and Stuart Wallace’s handshake on Monday was another milestone in the journey of Heart of Midlothian Football Club and, more importantly, their new majority shareholders, the Foundation of Hearts.
Inside the home dressing room in the new Main Stand at Tynecastle, the pair’s signatures completed Hearts’ remarkable comeback from death’s door to becoming the largest fan-owned club in the UK.
While the transfer of Ann Budge’s 75.1% share in the club may have felt like the end of a journey, it’s really the beginning of a new one, as Hearts now embark on their fan-owned path backed by their 8,000 strong pledgers.
“The feeling is enormous pride,” Wallace admitted.
“We have had around 12,000 members on and off, with around 8,000 regular members, and we are delighted to have it done for them.
“The document we signed says the Foundation of Hearts receive the majority shareholding on behalf of the members, so we see ourselves as custodians.
“It’s been a long road,” he added.
“We have come through some dark days. We were in the stadium on Monday, and we were saying ‘could we become the next Third Lanark?’ It was that bad at one point. We feared we would vanish and to pull it from there, with the fans, and Ann, we are here eight years later.”
Wallace recalls the early stages of the FoH’s rescue mission:
“I was a partner with PWC, I was the tax guy, some of my best mates were involved in insolvencies.
“I went to one of my mates with the accounts and said to him, ‘what did he think?’ He said to ‘get yourself ready for bad news’. That’s when you think this is real and we are in such a bad place.
“When an expert says it looks bleak, it’s bad. Brian Jackson thought we would be in a dark place when he arrived, but it was probably darker than he thought.
“We had no money in the bank – season tickets were sold, but the money was gone with a team to pay for the season, so I don’t think it could get any worse.
“You had the stories of cake sales and kids bringing piggy banks into the stadium. It seems a long time ago. But it’s worth remembering that the most common pledge we have is £10 from folk that will be your average supporter who think this will work in the long term. And here we are £12m later. It’s jaw dropping to get to that number and there’s no sign of it stopping.
“We had a few diversions along the way, with the new stand and the pandemic, but £12million has been raised and I think it is incredible testimony the love the fans have for the club.”
In 2012, Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan changed the club’s colours from blue to red, causing an uproar among supporters. Wallace explained that per FoH governance, the 8,000 members will have a vote in important proposals, such as the changing of the club’s name, colours and stadium plus the selling of the club shares:
“If anyone proposed to change the colours, the name of the team, a proposal to move away from Tynecastle, all would come back to a vote of the members.
“A simple majority of over 50% would decide the outcome. The one matter that needs a 90% majority is if we decided to sell the shares, or some of the shares.”
After fans showed the power they can have when acting to stop the proposed European Super League in April, Wallace hopes that other clubs are inspired by what Hearts have achieved.
“I hope it inspires clubs,” he admitted.
“There are many examples of fan involvement outside the UK – various clubs in the Bundesliga and FC Barcelona being good examples. We get approached a lot but ours isn’t the only model. Ours has been inspirational but there are others like Motherwell and St. Mirren. We are in touch with people from Newcastle United, Northampton Town and there’s other groups who ask how we have managed to pull this off and can they learn from us to get an element of community involvement. That has to be a good thing.
“We are handing the club back to the fans. After the tumultuous end to the previous owner’s era, Ann coming in with the Foundation, it almost feels like handing the club back to the supporters. We have always said they are the one true constant. The only people that really ever truly own the club are the fans.
“Directors of the foundation will come and go; players will come and go but the fans will always be there.
“It’s got to be up there as one of the greatest examples of fan power.
“I always remember Robbie [Neilson] saying when he came back to the club that the Foundation of Hearts IS Hearts.
“That’s a very good summary of it. The strapline has always been by the fans, for the fans. We are all fans that are involved – Ann is a fan – so it seems that momentum has come together to create something special and bring us to today.”
‘Heart and Soul Day’ was always about the fans and Wallace added that the whole project has always been about protecting the long-term interest of the Hearts supporters:
“If a football fan feels more engaged by its club, then surely that’s a happy marriage.
“That’s what this has always been about – protecting the Hearts supporters’ long-term interest. Having seen the club become a plaything of some overseas oligarch, we will never allow ourselves to go back there again.”
The Foundation announced another 200 members have signed up to pledge since the handover on Monday and Wallace repeated the group’s message, which has always been pledge what you can afford:
“We have sat at a membership of 8,000, we would love to use this as impetus to move forward. We’ve got almost 13,000 season ticket holders. We’d love to have everyone with us. We have always said pledge what you can afford. That’s the model.”
As for matters on the field, Wallace wants to see Hearts pushing for third spot, but insisted that it’s important the directors leave the football side of things to the professionals and jokingly admitted that despite thinking, as a supporter, he knew how a football club worked, he soon realised he didn’t.
“Why not? I have always grown up believing we are the third force, believing we should be challenging for honours. It’s important as a fans group that the directors allow the football club to get on with things. They know football and one of the things I realised quite quickly was that I didn’t! You think by sitting out there on a Saturday you know how a football club works – frankly, you don’t have a clue.
“It’s crucial that we are there in board meetings to participate and challenge and offer the view of the supporters, but recognise where we have a real involvement is round about those reserved matters and let the folks that are good at it crack on with the day job and make us as successful as possible.
“I would dearly love for us to be up there showing we are the third force and challenging in cup competitions.”