30 YEARS ago Hibernian FC and its fans faced existential peril at the hands of an attempted hostile takeover of the club. The tale, today, has all of the ingredients of a movie blockbuster; it has an optimistic venture gone catastrophically wrong, shadowy figures who looked one way but rowed another, a group of ordinary underdogs facing an uphill battle, and, it even has a pantomime villain in the shape of then Hearts supremo Wallace Mercer. Essentially, it also had a happy ending.
In June of 1990 most Scottish football fans were looking forward to the Italia 90 World Cup —remember, this was 30 years ago when Scotland actually qualified for tournaments. However, another drama was to grab the attention of football fans in Scotland’s capital and beyond that summer.
Bookmaker Kenny Waugh had sold Hibernian FC for around £800,000 in the late summer of 1987. Waugh had brought promising young St Mirren manager Alex Miller to Easter Road late in 1986 to replace John Blackley. Bertie Auld had got Hibs promoted at the first time of asking in season 80/81, following the club’s dismal relegation in the previous campaign, when even George Best couldn’t keep them up. However, the successive Hibs sides of Auld, Pat Stanton and John Blackley struggled in the top flight and none of those managers’ teams managed to finish in the top half of the table or record a victory over Hearts. A culture of under-achievement had set in.
Splashing the cash
At the start of the new season in 1987/88, new Hibs chairman David Duff splashed the cash, as fans would say now. Midfielder Neil Orr came in from West Ham for £100k. Highly rated Scotland No 2 goalie Andy Goram—who had actually been on Hibs’ signing radar since 1985—joined from Oldham Athletic in a £325,000 deal, a club record back then. Blackley’s last full season in charge had seen Hibs finish third bottom in a 10 team league despite scoring a barrowload of goals. Alex Miller had taken over midway through 1986/87 and finished fourth bottom, then in 1987/88, his first full season in charge, he led the Hibees to a sixth placed finish, narrowly missing out on a UEFA Cup spot. That had been the first time that Hibs had finished in the top half of the top flight since the 1970s. (League reconstruction was regular back then, the top flight contained ten teams in 1985/86, 12 in 1986/87 and 1987/88, then was reduced to 10 teams again for season 1988-89 then returned to a 12 team setup in 1991).
Duff and his brother in law Jim Gray brought in ex-Scotland striker Steve Archibald for season 1988-89, adding to the capture of striker Gareth Evans, who had been signed from Rotherham for £55,000 the previous January. Later in the season big Keith Houchen was also recruited from Coventry City for a six figure sum. That season the men in green reached the Scottish Cup semis and managed a fifth placed league finish, thus qualifying for the UEFA Cup as Scotland at the time had five European slots, due to English teams being on a five-year ban from Europe because of their fans’ endemic hooliganism.
Season 1989-90 saw Hibs make their first European foray in over a decade, and they did quite well in the UEFA Cup, beating Hungarian side Videoton 4-0 on aggregate, then narrowly losing to the now defunct Royal Liege of Belgium in the next round. Domestically, Hibs finished seventh that season, a regression, but still better than under previous managers. Alex Miller was allowed to continue spending. Six figure sums were spent on Mark McGraw, Paul Wright, Brian Hamilton and Neil Cooper. The club even managed to win a minor trophy, the 1990 Tennents Sixes, thanks largely to inspired performances by Andy Goram and the excellent Paul Kane. Minor improvements had also been made to Easter Road, too, as the enclosures of the old main stand had seats installed, which along with other minor renovations was said at the time to have cost almost £1 million.
In October 1988, Duff and Gray had floated Hibs on the stock market, creating a new Edinburgh Hibernian PLC. The share issue even had a promotional video featuring players and coaching staff. Fans stumped up and bought shares. The club had acquired a new main sponsor in building firm the Frank Graham Group, it even updated its badge, out went the strange ‘crowned ball’ affair, in came a new beermat style logo, in keeping with the club’s perceived modernisation.
In June 1990 , just as all seemed to finally be well at Hibernian, a nightmare visited the Easter Road faithful. Hearts supremo Wallace Mercer dropped the bombshell on June 3 that Hearts and Hibs were to be merged. It had turned out that despite all of the big spending by Duff and Gray, the new Edinburgh Hibernian PLC was in almost £6 million of debt. This debt was caused by a number of businesses owned by the PLC in southern England, including Avon Inns, a nightclub and a sports centre—all of which were haemorrhaging money. Mercer was confident that he would acquire the shares necessary to complete the so-called ‘merger’ as it seems that he had friends on the Hibs board in David Rowland and Jeremy James.
The façade of Mercer’s plan was actually not a bad idea in principal. Hibs and Hearts had only won one trophy each in the preceding 28 years and both had struggled at times since the late 1970s, living in the shadow of both the old and the new firm teams. Mercer’s supposed idea of a combined Edinburgh football club—provisionally named Edinburgh Diamond, as in his documents the code words for Hibs and Hearts were emerald and ruby respectively—a club which would challenge both the old and new firm and, more importantly, might get a place in the soon to be launched UEFA Champions League, was revolutionary. The new club was to move to a new stadium out of town and Easter Road and Tynecastle would be sold to developers, bringing in pots of money. There were two flaws in the plan. Firstly, the plan paid no consideration to the feelings of football fans and actually flew in the face of what is the very nature of the football supporter. Secondly, and most importantly, was the other flaw—it was nonsense.
The fans felt that this was no ‘merger,’ it was seen as a hostile takeover. Hibernian was to be erased from the footballing map, ethnically cleansed from Edinburgh. The ‘new’ team would wear maroon, would be called Hearts and would play at Tynecastle, and the vast majority of the fans knew it.
A myth has gradually been created over the decades that Hearts fans were just as much against this takeover as Hibs fans were. Some Hearts fans were against it, that’s true. Most weren’t. Most absolutely loved the whole episode and revelled in Hibernian’s troubles. If you were at school, college or work at the time, you’ll remember. Many Hearts fans and indeed fans of other some Scottish clubs wanted Hibs gone. Some hated Hibs because of the club’s heritage, some hated Hibs because of the casuals, others simply because they hated Hibs for footballing reasons or because the club is from Edinburgh. There were a very small number of Hearts fans at Hands Off Hibs events and some Hearts players came out on the side of Hibs at the time, notably striker John Robertson, who was ‘determined that Hibs should survive’. Hearts boss Alex Macdonald reportedly even had a confrontation with Mercer, where he asked his chairman what on earth he was playing at and suggested that it would be better if Hearts just bought Andy Goram instead. However, for the most part, Hibs fans would fight this ‘merger’ alone, while those in maroon giggled and sneered from the sidelines. In fairness, Hibs fans have been no more or less charitable when Hearts have suffered their own off-field difficulties – that’s football.
Hands Off Hibs
Hibs fans, distraught and afraid but also determined, formed Hands Off Hibs. Their HQ was the Hibs Club in Sunnyside Lane. Hibs fans rallied, with the compassion of family members around a dying loved one and with the defiance and stoicism of a battalion forming square for battle. Leaflets were handed out, collections were made, there was a battle bus, some fans even resorted to guerrilla-esque activities that targeted Wallace Mercer himself, some were childish and prankish in nature, others were more sinister and intimidating.
For all their courage and determination, Hibs fans knew that they needed help from a big money player to block Mercer’s merger. Two of the Hands Off Hibs campaign’s leaders, Kenny McLean and Douglas Cromb, took the fateful decision to go and see local business Tycoon Tom Farmer CBE. They politely asked for his help and reminded him that his ancestors had saved Hibernian back in 1892. Though not a football fan, Mr Farmer was aware of the club’s historic significance and agreed to help. He did so by immediately buying up enough shares in Edinburgh Hibernian PLC to effectively block Mercer’s takeover.
It was all a rather whirlwind, but intense episode. There was a famous rally in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. There was an even more famous rally at Easter Road itself (above), at which Hibbies The Proclaimers sang You’ll Never Walk Alone with the fans, club legend Joe Baker kissed the turf, and Hands Off Hibs’ leader, the great Kenny McLean, publicly stated that Mr Mercer should ‘keep his predator hands off’ Hibernian FC.
Without McLean, Cromb and Hands Off Hibs, nobody would have intervened to save the Hibees. Life for Edinburgh football fans these last 30 years may have been very different.
After the storm
The story didn’t end there, though. Hibs fans had to endure a dreadful season on the pitch in season 1990/91. Star player John Collins was sold to ease the debt. Club legend Paul Kane was also sold. Though Murdo Macleod was brought in, the threadbare team struggled all season and finished second-bottom. Top scorer Paul Wright notched just six goals. The Mercer merger may have been thwarted, but the debt was still there. Only another round of league reconstruction that term saved the Hibees from the ignominy of a relegation battle, though had there been relegation that season, it was St Mirren who’d have went down.
David Duff has hence been largely a figure of ridicule and even ire to Hibs fans. In the cold light of day, 30 years on from that dreadful summer of 1990, it’s worth noting that for all that may have happened, Duff was a Hibs fan and when it came down to it, he wouldn’t sell his shares to Wallace Mercer, and that was just as important as the other interventions which saved the club.
In the summer of 1991, Hibernian FC became a limited company once more, while the rest of the debt-plagued separate PLC eventually became Forth Investments. Andy Goram was sold to Rangers. The summer of 1991 had supposedly seen sheriff’s officers at the doors of Easter Road to collect debts.
As season 1991/92 dawned, most fans in the country expected another hard season for Edinburgh’s green and white. With new signing Keith Wright, the team surprised everybody, winning the SKOL League Cup, the club’s first major trophy since 1972, as well as finishing fifth in the league and qualifying for the UEFA Cup. Hearts, too, had a good season in 1991/92, and together this reinforced the fact that Edinburgh had and has the capacity to sustain two senior football teams. Indeed, from 1991 to 1995 we saw one of the best Hibs teams of the last 40 years, perhaps even the best in that time. Ironically, it was the club’s near death which created that good team.
Unity is strength
So, looking back 30 years—a time in which Edinburgh’s clubs have won six major trophies and have upgraded to their own modern stadiums—it seems absurd now that Edinburgh could have been a one club city. Hibernian survived and ultimately thrived, and though money was necessary to ensure that that happened, there was a bigger, deeper victory in the Hibees’ phoenix-esque recovery. That was in the good Hibs fans of Edinburgh and beyond uniting, in what was ultimately community and ordinary people’s stand against big finance and greed.
The Hands Off Hibs era forged an unbreakable bond between generations of Hibs fans that has endured to this day. That bond both reminds Hibs fans of just how bad things can become, thus giving perspective to smaller issues that great club has faced since, and also has instilled, even embedded, a desire that never again should the club and its fans have to face such desperate trauma. The old adage is particularly true when speaking of Hibs and their collective trauma of 30 years ago, ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’
Ian Colquhoun is the author of From Oblivion To Hampden and is the Hibernian FC columnist for The Irish Voice