ourEconomy: Opinion

Hearts have shown how fan ownership can change football for the better

The Edinburgh institution’s triumph from facing bankruptcy to becoming the UK’s biggest fan-owned football club offers a model for others to follow

Iain Lobban
3 September 2021, 12.00am
Ann Budge has signed over all her shares in Hearts to fans
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Eric MccCwat/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

“Without the support of the fans there is, as we issue this note, a real risk that Heart of Midlothian Football Club could possibly play its last game next Saturday, 17 November 2012. This isn’t a bluff, this isn’t scaremongering, this is a reality.”

I remember being on the bus going home from work when I read this grave statement. The football club in Edinburgh, Scotland, that I had supported since childhood had been served a winding-up order by HMRC, and without sufficient financial backing from supporters, faced the devastating prospect of playing its last ever game ten days later.

Years of gross financial mismanagement, coupled with the increasing apathy of the club’s controversial Russian owner Vladimir Romanov – who was hailed a saviour when his 2005 takeover prevented the sale of the club’s spiritual home Tynecastle Park but whose tenure ended in debts of around £30m – had finally taken their toll. Now, the club needed its supporters more than ever.

Hearts fans, no strangers to this kind of adversity, duly obliged. The home game against St Mirren on 17 November 2012 (a fixture not traditionally known for drawing capacity crowds) was a registered sell-out. The full house that afternoon, together with emergency funds raised through a share issue, had kept the wolves from the door. But any feelings of relief for those within its straw walls were to be short-lived. Darker days were on the horizon, and the wolves would grow hungry once again.

The darkest day eventually fell on 17 June 2013, when the club finally entered administration. As the team battled against relegation following a 15-point deduction for entering insolvency, a far more serious fight was taking place off the pitch. At stake was nothing less than the survival of an institution founded in 1874.

An angel in the wings

Enter the Foundation of Hearts, which had been established in 2010 by a group of local Hearts-supporting business people who had grown disillusioned with Romanov’s stewardship. Joined by a host of other Hearts supporters’ groups in 2013 and backed by a rapidly increasing membership, each pledging a monthly amount of £10 or more, the foundation set out to achieve its aim: returning custody of the club to its fans.

The supporters were aided in their mission by Ann Budge, a successful IT entrepreneur, Hearts supporter and member of the foundation who stumped up £2.5m of her own money to acquire the club’s majority shareholding in 2014 – hauling it from the brink of extinction in the process. Without her initial generosity, the club simply would not have made it.

In the seven years since, Budge has set about rebuilding the club on more sustainable financial ground while restoring its previously neglected social consciousness. This included introducing the national living wage to club employees and using the team’s shirts (commonly reserved for commercial sponsorship) to promote charitable causes such as Save The Children and MND Scotland.

And with the continued monthly backing of its 8,000-strong membership, the foundation gradually repaid Budge’s initial outlay, culminating in the club’s ‘Heart & Soul Day’ celebration on Monday when Budge officially signed over her shares to the foundation, making Heart of Midlothian the UK’s biggest fan-owned football club.

In Scotland, supporters are the lifeblood of their clubs. But it’s a two-way street. At no period has that been more pertinent than in the past 18 months, when the COVID-19 pandemic not only starved many clubs of their usual match day revenue, but also cut off a primary source of social engagement for thousands of supporters. Scottish football may not boast the star quality or vast riches of the English Premier League, but that fundamental interdependence is a source of great pride.

Sadly, this seems to have been lost in the gluttonous world of modern elite football, where the interests of the privileged few take precedence – a reality that was laid bare by the recent European Super League debacle. As the gap between football’s haves and have-nots continues to widen, so too does the disconnect between elite clubs and the communities who rely on them.

With investors all wanting a piece of the elite football pie, it seems the further up the ladder a club is, the more distant that dream of fan ownership becomes

As I scrolled through the congratulatory posts on social media this week, I was amazed by how many supporters of other clubs harbour similar aspirations to what the foundation has achieved.

The main issue for those groups is how they can get their foot in the door. Like Hearts, many clubs that have achieved fan ownership had to build from the ground up, usually after a financial collapse that threatened (or even destroyed) their very existence. Hearts were also hugely fortunate to have a supporter such as Budge not only provide the necessary capital at the time, but also facilitate such a gradual repayment. Not every club has such a saviour waiting in the wings.

Unfortunately, with the financial bubble of elite football swelling to astronomical proportions and foreign investors all wanting a piece of the pie, it seems the further up the ladder a club is, the more distant that dream of fan ownership becomes. Would that bubble have to burst before fan ownership could be considered a more widely accepted model?

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For the Foundation of Hearts, the fan ownership journey has only just begun. There are likely to be many challenges along the way: maintaining pledges at a consistent level even when the team performs badly; remaining competitive and growing as a club; and ensuring the next generation carries it forward. How the foundation negotiates these elements will be the subject of great interest for like-minded observers in the years ahead. But one thing that will help its cause is the undeniable fact that a club’s fanbase is its only true constant.

When I think back on Hearts’ time in administration, it’s clear how fortunate fans such as myself have been to be part of such a strong and supportive community. A community who believed they could make a difference, who lived and breathed the Foundation of Hearts from the start and put their blood, sweat and tears into saving such a crucial part of fans’ lives and preserving it for future generations.

Oligarchs may love the idea of a football club, but they will never love it the way its supporters do. That deep connection is what sits at the heart of fan ownership and will ultimately drive its success.

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