‘The ‘Hands Off Hibs’ Group asked me to go along to Usher Hall and I did…. I explained my support for the Hibs players also, as with such a merger one full squad of at least 30 players would be no more”
John Robertson – Heart of Midlothian
On the 3rd of October 1988, the headlines in Scotland were dominated by the Government’s framework of aims and objectives for the future management of Scottish Prisons and the problems encountered with ‘violent and disruptive’ inmates. If you browsed a little deeper through the inner pages of the broadsheet ‘The Scotsman’ that day you may also have seen an advert headlined: ‘An Opportunity to Share in Hibernian’s Future’. That day Hibernian Football Club, established in 1875 in the overcrowded slums of Cowgate by Edinburgh’s immigrant Irish population, became the first Scottish club to float on the stock exchange.
Supporters were advised they could have their say by becoming shareholders with a minimum investment of £198 of their hard-earned cash. The advertisement informed: ‘There were no guaranteed benefits’ and ‘fans would have no say in the day-to-day running of the club’ but would be invited to AGMs and be able to put questions to directors. It seemed unique and dynamic; Tottenham Hotspur had been the first British club to be listed on the stock market five years earlier and this approach was still a novelty. The timing seemed right too with Hibs flying on the pitch and sitting in second place in the Scottish Premier League following a 3-1 defeat of Celtic with a brace from ex-Barcelona star Steve Archibald.
The stock market flotation was the brainchild of then-Chairman and self-claimed lifetime Hibee David Duff who had joined the board the previous year. He was an enigmatic character who attracted the attention of tax exile and Conservative Party Treasurer David Rowland. Rowland agreed to bankroll the Edinburgh club, but only if the green and white hordes were willing to fork out too. Along with the newspaper advertisements, there was also a television ad campaign voiced by Ian St. John, then of Saint and Greavsie fame. The scheme was a success, fans bought shares in their thousands and a profit of £1.5 million winged its way back to Rowland and his company in London.
As the champagne corks popped, hidden in the small print of the newly formed Edinburgh Hibernian PLC and unbeknown to fans, was a loss-making restaurant chain, owned by one of Rowland’s companies and haemorrhaging cash at such a rate it would take Hibernian football club into receivership. In December 1989 it was announced that Edinburgh Hibernian PLC had made an annual loss of £1.6 million, taking the club’s overdraft to the alarming figure of £5.5 million.
By 1990 the for-sale sign was up at Easter Road as Rowland had decided to sell his 29.9% stake in Hibernian PLC. Duff, his brother-in-law and Managing Director Jim Gray and fellow Director Allan Munro were summoned to London by Rowland. What the trio discovered at the hastily arranged meeting was that Rowland had found a buyer, and from Rowland’s lips came the name ‘Walter Mercer’.
Mercer was then chairman of Heart of Midlothian and the Tynecastle supremo had the idea of merging the two great Edinburgh rivals. Football rivalry and identity in Scotland’s capital city was to be consigned to the history books as Mercer planned a more powerful club capable of challenging the West of Scotland’s ‘Old Firm’ and their dominance of Scottish football.
With land owned by then Rangers owner David Murray, a purpose-built stadium would be created in the Hermiston area on the outskirts of the city. However, the plan depended on the closure of the Hibernian Football Club and the sale of the existing Easter Road and Tynecastle grounds. On the 3rd of June 1990 as the Scottish national team prepared for World Cup Italia ’90, Mercer outlined his plans to the media.
In essence it was the boldest bid ever proposed in British football, and the idea of merging two clubs with a century of rivalry caused shockwaves and astonishment among the local journalists gathered at the announcement. Hibees fans awoke the next morning to the news of the ‘merger‘ splashed across every national newspaper, meanwhile, the stock market reacted with news that Hearts had received an undertaking from Rowland’s company Inoco plc to accept a 40p per share offer. The move valued Hibernian at more than £6 million.
‘One Club in Edinburgh’ was Mercer’s motto and one that left Hibernian fans in shock at the prospect of being deprived of their club. Within the space of a few hours, graffiti captured the feeling all over the Hibee heartlands: ‘No Sell-Out’ and ‘7-0 always Hibernian’ walls read, while one much more aggressive sentiment opined ‘Mercer dies’. The local community cared enough that they could make a difference alongside the 1,700 fans who owned a 15% stake in the club. They were told to stay calm… a plan of action was afoot.
As England witnessed a revolt against Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Poll Tax’, so the Hibees fans were planning their own revolt to save their football club. ‘Hands off Hibs’ became the battle cry. Converging on Easter Road that day from Calton Hill, Oxgangs and Leith, the once-great industrial heartbeat of Edinburgh, tensions were high as fans began to become increasingly vocal.
Through the crowds that day came former Hibernian vice-chairman Kenny McLean with a calm but assertive voice in the mould of an ‘Arthur Scargill’. He rounded up his troops and announced the formation of the ‘Hands off Hibs’ group with its base to be sited in the aptly named district of Sunnyside. A rally was organised for the following Saturday at Easter Road after their initial idea of a march through the city was rejected by police authorities. A ‘fighting fund’ would also be set up and received its first donation of £1,000 from an anonymous and generous Hearts fan. The campaign was off and running.
On that Saturday the 9th of June it seemed everybody had laid siege to the home of Hibernian, even many Hearts fans equally disgusted with Mercer’s plans. On the hallowed turf that day politicians, Hibee legends, and celebrity fans mingled together, united in their attempts to save their football club. The throngs on the terraces and in the stands listened to a succession of impassioned speeches and condemnations of Mercer’s takeover from Leith MP Ron Brown and European Parliamentarian David Martin. Playing legends such as Pat Stanton, Tommy Higgins, Jimmy O’Rourke and Jackie McNamara Senior were paraded. Messages of support were read out from ex-player Gordon Strachan and Scots golfer Bernard Gallacher. As the sound of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was belted out by the Reid brothers (The Proclaimers), resplendent in ‘Hands off Hibs’ t-shirts, former player Joe Baker was on his knees kissing the turf.
Importantly support was also forthcoming from the annals of power with Edinburgh District Council and Lothian Regional Council backing the campaign. MP and lifelong Celtic fan Brian Wilson looked for clarification of the Bank of Scotland’s role and support of Mercer’s bid, while his colleague Brown threatened to take the issue to the Office of Fair Trading.
The following week Edinburgh businessman Tom Farmer purchased a substantial book of shares and outlined his intention not to own the club, but rather to preserve a hundred years of history. However with the promise of Rowland’s shares, Mercer looked on his way to his goal of 76%, considered by the Bank of Scotland to be the magic number needed for the sale to go through. The Hearts chairman was hopeful Duff would also relinquish his shares worth a reputed £700,000, but in an amazing twist of fate the solicitor refused and urged the supporters’ group and others not to sell their stakes either.
The deadline of July 2nd set in the Hearts prospectus was delayed by a week as that same night hordes of fans gathered at Usher Hall for a rally. The event was chaired by the SNP’s Margo McDonald, a lifelong supporter of the club, and the evening included a passionate speech by then Hearts forward John Robertson disowning his supremo’s masterplan.
Throughout the following weeks, petitions were assembled along with street bucket collections, a ‘Hands off Hibs’ bus came into being and meandered its way through the cobbled streets of Edinburgh to Tynecastle where a cordial welcome was received. At Number 10 the Iron Lady was paid a visit by lifelong Hibs fans Brian Rogan and Tom Connor who handed in a copy of the organisation’s petition. The Bank of Scotland was not left unscathed by the developing crisis either and their headquarters was constantly picketed over a five-week period.
The Blue Peter presenter and lifelong Hibernian fan John Leslie stood in front of BBC cameras wearing the now famed ‘Hands off Hibs’ t-shirt and at the annual Leith Festival Gala Parade that summer, the ‘battle bus’ with Gordon Strachan and the Proclaimers onboard mingled with floats.
On Saturday the 14th of July and after nearly six weeks of campaigning by fans, Mercer admitted defeat with only 62% of shares secured. Under the orders of the Bank of Scotland, the deal was off. Through the sheer ferocity of determination displayed by ordinary football fans, Hibernian Football Club was saved and on that July day in Leith, the sun shone for all to see.