INTERVIEW WITH FOUNDATION CHAIRMAN GERRY MALLON
“YOU REALISE THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT THIS PLACE”
Choosing not to follow one of the Old Firm when growing up in Belfast takes a bit of character, but that was the road that Gerry Mallon, now Foundation of Hearts chairman, took. Despite the default position for a Catholic in that city of supporting Celtic and the Republic side, Gerry chose Liverpool and Northern Ireland.
It’s an interesting insight into the man. His immediate family actually had little interest in football but he discovered that his Scottish relatives were big fans. His mother’s cousin, Frank Crampsey, was Queen’s Park’s goalkeeper in the 1950s and Frank’s brother was Bob Crampsey, the distinguished author, broadcaster, journalist, football historian, and Brain of Britain. Impressive lineage.
Gerry’s involvement in football governance can be traced back to 2012 when the bank he led, Danske Bank, became the sponsors of the Northern Irish league. “We were about to rebrand and the Irish FA were let down at the last minute by their sponsors. They approached us about becoming the new sponsor and that partnership fitted in perfectly with our rebrand.”
Appointed as chairman of the Irish FA
A couple of years later, the Irish FA were looking for an independent chairman with corporate governance experience and approached Gerry to put himself forward as a candidate. “It was a competitive process and after being interviewed, I was appointed as chairman designate and then after a year, I became chairman.
“It was a brilliant experience. We were into the start of the Euros 2016 campaign, which was a real high point of Irish football. We hadn’t been to an international competition since the 1986 World Cup and we won our group to qualify. We also finished the redevelopment of our stadium, so everything was on a roll.
“The night we played Poland in Nice in our first group game, I found myself with Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong. If the 12-year-old me had been able to fast forward 34 years from the 1982 World Cup, he would have had his mind blown! It was a mindbending moment for me being with these guys that I’d idolised as a child.”
Gerry served two terms as the Irish FA chairman and counts retaining the services of Michael O’Neill as manager despite the attentions of Scotland as one of his main achievements. Much as he would have liked to have continued in his role there, his career had brought him to Edinburgh, so he stepped down.
First visits to Tynecastle
“Myself and my son Jude had no preconceptions about who to support here. We started going to Tynecastle and it captured us. I didn’t know anything about McCrae’s Battalion, about the Foundation, about the fact that the club had nearly died. But the picture started to build up and you realise there’s something about this place.
“I did have a debate with Michael O’Neill because, of course, he played for Hibs. He said that we should go to both places and see where I would feel more welcome and I don’t think he’s surprised where I’ve ended up.”
His family have also enjoyed being part of the Hearts community, in particular his youngest daughter, Sarah. “Previously I couldn’t persuade her to go to a football match, but now she’s head, neck and shoulders into football and Hearts. She’s actually really into women’s football so Eva Olid’s team is her number one passion.
“My wife Una and Aoife, my second youngest, both volunteer with Big Hearts now. They chose that completely separate from me and found their own way there, nothing to do with me.”
About the Foundation, he describes himself as “massively pleasantly surprised” to discover that a fan ownership group could have the resources to acquire majority shareholding and that it could find a model that would allow it to not become reactive or factional. “I was incredibly impressed when I saw the stage the Foundation had got to – the Heart and Soul Day handover and the ethos of fan-owned not fan run.”
A message of solidarity
Gerry engaged with Stuart Wallace, then the chairman of the Foundation, following the Brora result. “I was keen that for all the negative reaction that the Foundation was getting, there should be some positivity too and a message of solidarity. I’d seen it before in Northern Ireland – we had our own Brora moment when we lost to Luxembourg but we stuck with Michael and he delivered the best results for 30 years. So having come through that, I could see that you need to stick with a long-term vision and belief in what you’re doing.”
The dialogue with Stuart continued. Gerry stood successfully in the board elections, then in June 2022 he became chairman.
He has interesting views on the club and the Hearts community. “Football crowds don’t have a reputation for being very diverse or welcoming but my sense is that you get a broader spectrum socially at Hearts than in most crowds that I’ve been to and certainly better gender balance than I’ve seen in in almost any football crowd.
“The thing that has surprised me as well is that every football board room or group I’ve been involved in is very factional, political, and full of people that are pushing their own agenda. But I find Hearts a real contrast to that. It’s not to say that there’s not the odd self-interested person around but on the whole, I see people who are genuinely interested in helping the club.
“The fact that it’s fan owned gives real strength to that. Nobody is looking to make a quick buck. No-one is going to make millions out of it as the money goes back to the club. That makes for an environment which attracts people who genuinely want to help the cause rather than help themselves. They are interested in helping the Foundation as it serves no other purpose other than to give joy and pride and help to its community.”
Maximising the success of the club
The Foundation, he believes, is at an interesting stage. “Our first purpose was to save the club, then to deliver fan ownership. Now we’ve got to establish that it’s about maximising the success of the club and continuing its long-term health.
“The Foundation has a really strong membership base who have been tested through peaks and troughs, including demotion and Covid. It has proved really loyal and resilient. As a board we have to ensure that we are not complacent about that support and that we continue to keep relevant and keep demonstrating the importance of the pledges in terms of the success of the club.
“The next stage is also about renewing our appeal to a different generation of pledgers. We have to build on the premise that being a Foundation pledger is part of the DNA of being a Hearts fan – as much as wearing the scarf, or knowing the songs, or the pub you drink in. We’ve an obligation to convey that message so that fans really appreciate the opportunity we’ve got to be the exceptional club that under fan ownership can be massively successful. That’s the challenge and the opportunity.”
Asked if he’s enjoying his role, Gerry is unequivocal. “I love it. I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have an absolute ball doing it. I feel incredibly lucky to have stepped onto the Foundation board and the club board when the club is in really good shape. And I’m incredibly fortunate to be part of the Hearts family when we have amazing occasions like the European run.
Like Napoleon said, don’t get me good generals, get me lucky ones. I’m happy to be lucky and in the right place at the right time.”