Twelve months ago, Foundation of Hearts chairman Gerry Mallon stood in the Tribuna Coperta looking across the Stadio Artemio Franchi to the thousands of Hearts fans still in the ground long after a 5-1 defeat to Fiorentina in the Conference League. A maroon-and-white party was well under way.

“Fiorentina directors and staff couldn’t believe it, they had never seen anything like it before. Italy is full of really passionate ultras but they had never seen anything like it before,” Mallon told Hearts Standard as he looked back at high points during his time involved with the club's majority shareholders. “These guys had just been humped 5-1 and were still singing their heads off. That told me about the potential there is to tap into the passion fans have for Hearts. There is something really special that we’ve got and we can make even more of.”

A wet Tuesday night in Ayrshire is a long way away from Florence. There wasn't such a party atmosphere ahead of a League Cup clash at Kilmarnock in September. A section of the visiting support made their feelings known regarding the running of the club. For those who missed it, a banner was unfurled before kick-off. The message: 'Funded by fans, ran by clowns. We deserve better'.

Mallon felt the protests could have been handled a "bit better" but noted fans are "entitled to voice their opinions, whatever way they want to". Criticism of the board has been evident during the season so far and the Foundation chair is very much tuned into what fans' views are.

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Hearing fan opinion

"Everybody who follows Hearts, is a member of the Foundation or is involved with the Foundation are all crazy about the club," he said. "Whenever the club is not performing the way we want it to be, everybody is hurting, everybodys' emotions are up. I can understand completely, any high emotion or sentiment.

"We also get plenty of communication. We encourage people to send their views and opinions. We clearly see that and we are all on social media, we read [Jambos] Kickback. You don't need to be terribly far from people at Tynecastle or an away ground to know what people are thinking. It is no secret to us what emotions are, what opinions are. I can't say we are anyway out of touch with how people feel."

That strength of feeling is no surprise to Mallon, a former chairman of the Irish FA who became a Hearts fan along with his family after moving to Scotland's capital in 2018 for work with Tesco Bank where he is CEO. He reached out to his predecessor Stuart Wallace following the fallout from the team’s exit from the Scottish Cup to Brora Rangers in 2021. It was at a time when supporters expressed dissatisfaction over the running of the club as well as then manager Robbie Neilson.

While Mallon admitted to Hearts Standard that the Foundation are keen "to demonstrate a little bit more that we are listening to, reacting and feeding through fans' views on everything that is going on", he made it abundantly clear the group and the club listen to and are aware of fan opinion.

"I hate to trot out the 'fan-owned, not fan-run' mantra because people dismiss it as being a bit trite," he said. "But the fundamentals of that are as a Foundation board we can hear what fans are saying. The club board also knows what fans are saying. We can feed opinions around the board table, we have a voice at the board table. But what we can't or won't do is articulate our own opinions. I think it is wrong for any board member to articulate anything other than the clear will of the board. We as a Foundation board wouldn't say anything that was critical of the club or players or management or executives or individuals connected with the club. We will very much listen but we will feed all our comments in private."

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Working with the Hearts board

Mallon sits as one of two Foundation of Hearts representatives on the club board alongside Donald Cumming, and the pair are in regular dialogue with their fellow board members. That was the case with the appointment of Steven Naismith as head coach, initially installed as technical director due to coaching qualifications.

There was plenty of interest as to how such an appointment is made and the Foundation's role within that. A sub-committee of the board spoke to candidates for the position with the final recommendation made by sporting director Joe Savage and Andrew McKinlay, the club's chief executive.

“The major decisions are taken by the club board and they are taken by the club board together,” Mallon explained. “It is a unitary board. We make those decisions together and they are decisions after a lot of discussion and by consensus. It never comes down purely on the basis of a vote, different camps or factions and the rest of it. We make decisions together and we support them all together. All the directors on the board feel we have an equal voice.

“We are heavily informed by the people who are the subject-matter experts. On finance we are heavily informed by Jacqui [Duncan] and the stuff that she does, on football it is Joe and Andrew making recommendations on what we should do. We discuss and debate and challenge and then ultimately support.

“There are a number of us around the table, while we don’t work full-time for the club we see an awful lot of what goes on at the club and we are exposed pretty well to it. We have got the opportunity to take all the information, what the football professionals are saying, what the fans are saying, our conversations with others inside and outside the club whose opinions we respect and feed it all into the mix and discussion.

“People like myself and Donald, James Anderson and Kevin Windram, all of us who are not executives in the club, our opinions are taken with equivalent value in all the discussions. I do feel like I have a material impact in all the decisions. I wouldn’t be on the board if I didn’t feel our opinions weren’t taken seriously. I really do feel the club is thoughtful and cognisant of the opinions fed in by the foundation directors. We are the largest shareholder.

“There was a bit of controversy when we had a managerial change around the whole role of the Foundation. We were pushing back saying we are fan owned, not fan run. I don’t think we can be rectionary. Our job is to understand the opinions but filter the emotion so we make, as much as possible, dispassionate and objective decisions.”

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Wanting what's best for Hearts

Mallon believes it is a system which has worked and continues to work, ensuring the board "have got the space to be able to make more dispassionate and long-term decisions recognising the fact fan sentiment and emotion can run very high".

"I think it is up to the board to understand that and be dispassionate and try to make long-term decisions," he said. "I can understand on the other hand the expectation of fans that when things look very clear to them, and they have got minds made up, they can't understand why certain things don't happen the way they want to very quickly. There has been a criticism in some quarters that the club have been too slow to make decisions. I'm not sure it is fully justified but it is clearly a view that some people have."

He added: “On the club board and all the people who work on the club, I see them completely fixated on trying to do the best thing for Hearts. Quite often when you are in football organisations people are in it for themselves rather than the good of the club or the organisation. That is not the case at Hearts. I just see people who are obsessed about really wanting the best for Hearts.

“I know emotions run strong and it is one of the reasons I got involved in the Foundation in the first place. If you have the courage of your conviction and stick with them and you know when to make the difficult calls and you know when not to, all of these things are judgements. All you can do is use your judgement and do your best. Ultimately I am in a position where people will vote me in and vote me out. If I make sensible decisions in the long term they will vote me in and if I don’t I’ll know to jump or I’ll get pushed.”

The roller coaster

Such is the capricious nature of Heart of Midlothian Football Club, when Mallon was chosen to replace Wallace as FoH chairman, taking on the position in June 2022, the club were in a fantastic position having finished third and ensured they would be taking part in group stage European football for the first time since 2004. He has since witnessed a managerial departure and subsequent appointment. None of which has taken away from an “absolutely amazing” experience so far as FoH chairman.

“First of all, the Foundation is an incredible bunch of people that are so determined to support Hearts in every way they can,” he said. “It’s a small group of really hardy volunteers that throw their hearts into it. It is really characterised by people like Garry Halliday and the team who support him to do the plot ceremonies. Hearts are an absolute labour of love for them. And also a really hardcore group of people who have been there since day one of the foundation putting in money with nothing back substantively other than just seeing their club a) surviving, b) becoming fan owned and c) continuing to develop and flourish. So you feel a real sense of responsibility to do the right thing for those people and help them.

“I felt really fortunate stepping onto the club board at a time when we were in Europe where it felt there was real momentum and we were really on the up. We obviously went through some challenges and difficulties and all the rest of it. It felt like a challenging second half of the season and a difficult enough summer and start to this year.”

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The Foundation benefits from a number of successful individuals within their respective fields. That can mean people with important and high-pressured jobs. But Mallon is afforded time by Tesco Bank to work on his role as FoH chairman, noting it is of benefit to his employer “if you are doing something which is of benefit to the community which I think Hearts genuinely is”. Admittedly, it means family life can be impacted but two of his children are now massive fans of the club with his youngest daughter’s life goal being to play for the Hearts Women’s side.

“Tesco is really good at allowing me time to do this,” he said. "You do find organisations are prepared to give their executives a bit of additional time to do that because it actually makes you more committed in your day job if you are given a bit of leeway to do something else that is a passion. 

“The issue for me is I don’t have much trouble balancing Hearts and work, the bit that probably gets squeezed is family in the middle. Everyone else has been caught up by it. The excitement is hard to resist once you get on that roller coaster. The people are so nice as well, you come for the football, you stay for the people."