'I did not sleep a wink that night': Hearts share transfer - darkest day to proudest day, from a man right at centre of it
“It was probably the toughest day of my life. I will never forget it. Not just because I was manager but because I’m a huge Hearts fan.”
Eight years on and the emotional scars are still there. Gary Locke does not believe they will ever completely disappear but thanks to the passage of time, the loyalty of Hearts fans and the effort of so many behind the scenes, those scars are now a badge of honour, a sign of survival and a reminder that a football club is always about far more than eleven men on the pitch or the bricks and mortar of a ground. It is about the heart and the soul.
Today, Hearts will become Britain's largest fan-owned football club when Ann Budge formally transfers her majority shareholding over to the Foundation of Hearts.
“That will be one of the proudest moments of my life,” said the man who has played, captained, managed the club and is, first and foremost, an ardent, lifelong fan. “I am not surprised that the Hearts fans rallied round back then and, obviously with the help of Ann, saved the club. I know how loyal they are to the club, but the fact that it has been so sustainable makes me really proud to be a Hearts fan.
“I think the fact it has got this far will be a surprise to a lot of people. But, it shouldn’t be.”
Back in the summer of 2013 then Hearts manager Locke sent out an emotional email to every single fan on the club’s database, urging them to back the Foundation of Hearts’ bid to buy the administration-hit club.
That plea to around 65,000 supporters came just months after punters had already dug deep to raise millions as financial problems piled up and as tax bills and winding up orders threatened the club’s existence.
“I still remember when Bryan [Jackson, one of the administrators] told me that if we couldn’t raise £1.8m in the next couple of weeks, this club wouldn’t be here. He showed me just how big a mess the club was in and, although I thought I’d had some sleepless nights as a manager, I can tell you I did not sleep a wink that night. It was an extremely precarious predicament we were in but, thankfully, we managed to pull through it.”
People responded, the FoH won preferred bidder status, and from the day the club was rescued this day has been circled on the calendar.
“Credit to Bryan and Trevor [Birch, the joint administrator] and the boss, Ann Budge and all of the people involved with the Foundation because they managed to get it over the line and, speaking first hand, I know the Lithuanians were not easy to deal with,” said Locke, who now works as a club ambassador. “When you think about fans owning a football club, it would normally worry you a bit because there are so many different opinions.
“I can speak to my brother and my dad after a game and none of us will have the same opinion. But the fans realise that as much as they are going to become the majority shareholder, it will still be up to [chief executive] Andrew McKinlay and people like that making the big decisions on a daily basis and every time he makes a decision the fans are not happy with, they have to let that run. They can’t just stop their direct debit. There will always be some who do that and I can understand that because I have gone home from games feeling frustrated when Hearts lose but I think the majority of Hearts fans and Foundation of Hearts contributors realise how it works.”
There have been minor fluctuations, with the power of their pledges not lost on punters, who were keen to flex some financial muscle during the past few years, when the acumen off the pitch was not always reflected on it.
In a way, it has served as a useful test of resolve and proves that there is the necessary level of durability in the ownership model, even when patience runs thin. From foreign-based fans, to former players, to the current squad and fans old and new, the collective will to see the club thrive has remained strong.
“It is phenomenal. We still have 7500-8000 people putting their hands in their pockets every month and the biggest compliment is when you get clubs like Newcastle coming up to ask the club and the Foundation how they managed to do it.
“Those involved will tell you, it has been a long journey but luckily we had a supporter in Ann, who I can’t speak highly enough of in terms of everything she has done for the club. Some people forget that because the football side has been disappointing over the past few years, and there’s no getting away from that, but in terms of the way the club is now even compared to the one I played for, let alone managed, it is in a great place.
“For fans it will always be about results on the pitch, but we are very fortunate to have Ann and such a loyal fanbase because that has got us into the position we are in now and I see what being part of that means to fans who attend the Foundation of Hearts plot ceremonies etc.”
Eight years ago, Hearts almost closed their doors for the final time. Now, as the turnstiles rattle again and fans return from lockdown, they understand more than ever just what today’s handover signifies. It is a celebration of the symbiotic relationship between club and fans and of just how far they have all come.