This feature is part of A Tale of One City
STANDING IN THE DIRECTORS’ MEETING ROOM at Easter Road at a club open day, Frank Dougan sits down and explains, “I go to every Hibs game home and away and I often watch the under-20s play as well – but I do not go to Tynecastle any more, not since Hands Off Hibs.”
Dougan is a non-executive director appointed as one of two fan representatives on the board and well-known amongst the club’s supporters. He speaks of how his great-grandfather was a member of the St. Patrick’s Catholic Young Men’s Society that established Hibs. To him, Hands Off Hibs defended something that has been integral to his family for generations and he clearly remembers how close it all came to ending.
July 14, 2015, marked the 25th anniversary of the end of former Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer’s failed attempt to buy the then-financially vulnerable Hibernian. In a perilous position after a failed property venture from the club’s owners, Mercer was the mystery “saviour” suggested by Hibs majority shareholder David Rowland.
Mercer proposed that the two clubs join forces in an attempt the two clubs in an attempt to pool resources and take on the Old Firm. Fans from both sides, particularly Hibs, were furious. Bullets in the mail, police protection, bomb checks on Mercer’s car – the response to the suggestion was visceral.
The Hands Off Hibs group mobilised after the announcement and in the end, the merger – seen by Hibs fans as a takeover attempt – was thwarted, with Sir Tom Farmer taking over the Easter Road club instead. In later years, Mercer admitted that the way he handled the announcement was not ideal but his family has argued that 20 years on, with no titles for Edinburgh’s two clubs, his suggestion perhaps does not look so ridiculous.
Would a combined Edinburgh team have had more success in Scottish football? Possibly but it’s difficult to know what kind of resources would have been available. Tellingly, the idea of joining with the enemy and casting aside tradition and history for a fast-tracked chance of success was not one that either set of fans took to, despite the fact that it meant both teams have subsequently won precious little.
One of the main problems with the bid was that it prioritised business over both the rivalry between the two clubs. Hearts fan and former SNP leader Alex Salmond said at the time: “Heart of Midlothian are in the hands of a person who cares more about property development than football tradition.” Mercer’s underestimation of the strength of the bitterness between the two sides of the city was ultimately his biggest mistake.
When the two teams next played each other at Easter Road during the 1990-91 season, this anger came to a head. British football in the 1990s saw attempts to move away from an era of casuals and catastrophes to become the game we know now. This particular match however had an added air of tension as Hibs fans desperately sought vengeance against the side that they thought were trying to eliminate them.
Thousands packed into the stadium on September 15, 1990, for what is now known as The Wallace Mercer Derby. When that particular game is mentioned, Dougan shakes his head. “There was so much hatred in the air, real venom, I’m not sure I’ve expected anything as heated as that in a long time.”
The early season contest saw both teams enter with one point from three games, Hibs still trying to regroup financially, Hearts with Sandy Clark in caretaker charge. A poisonous atmosphere, it was clear that this was going to be a particularly feisty affair prior to kick off. Police warned Mercer to stay away from the match for his own safety. The derby itself changed that day.
Hearts had dominated results in the game in the preceding years and started off the better of the two teams, although football was at a premium, with both sides playing in a physical fashion. When Jambo club legend John Robertson scored after 12 minutes, the home support was incensed. With future Scotland boss Craig Levein and Robertson bagging further goals before half time, the players were taken off the pitch with the score at 3-0 to Hearts as raging Hibs fans stormed the pitch.
After a short delay to calm the crowds, the teams completed the game without any further goals in the second half, with Hibs having more of the possession in a low-key 45 minutes. Some Edinburgh locals claim that the police entered the Hearts dressing room during half time to tell the team not to extend their lead for fear of potential pandemonium in the stands. There were over 50 arrests that day but this was no ordinary display of football thuggery; this was an overspill of a passionate rivalry that had almost been destroyed.
For a city that has its main tourist attraction sat on top of an extinct volcano, football has rarely caused such explosive tension. Hearts won this particular battle but for Edinburgh’s sake, it is a good thing that Hands Off Hibs won the war earlier that summer. As part of the takeover bid, the new team would have moved to a new stadium outside the city, leaving the city with no teams playing in Scottish league football for the first time.
As the city has grown, the boundary between Leith and Edinburgh has blurred to the extent that some would argue Leith is just another part of Edinburgh. Hearts fans, though, like to play on this and call Hibernian ‘the wee team from Leith’. As well as local geography, there are a number of other differences between the two clubs. Like most two-team cities in Scotland, nationalism and religion have historically had a part to play but Edinburgh’s rivalry has now largely evolved past that.
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Hearts’ Bobby Prentice and James Cant pursue Hibernian’s Pat Stanton in an Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle in 1973
Removing Hibs from the face of Scottish football may not have prevented Rangers and Celtic from dominating the Scottish landscape for the last 30 years but the importance of Edinburgh’s clubs should not be overlooked, both playing a huge role in the development through Scotland, Britain and around the world.
Nowadays if you walk through the Meadows, a large patch of grass next to Edinburgh University’s library, it is typically packed with students barbecuing the grass while attempting to cook burgers and hide alcohol from passing police. This playground for students in the city was, back on Christmas Day of 1875, the site of the first ever Edinburgh derby between Hearts and Hibernian, and key to the establishment of both clubs.
This game served as the first since the formation of Hibs, who lost 1-0, while Hearts were hardly more established, only a year into their own existence. The two clubs have now met 634 times in all competitions, including local competitions and friendlies.
With the might of the Glasgow giants, Edinburgh’s two biggest clubs have largely had to play second fiddle in Scotland, despite being the oldest football rivalry in the country. The duo have been called a ‘mini-Old Firm’ over the course of their history due to perceived links to that most Scottish of football problems, sectarianism. While there is some truth to that, the history of the two clubs indicates that religion and politics are considerably less important to the heat of this duel.
In their place, Dr. John Kelly, expert on the sociology of sport at the University of Edinburgh, argues that national identity was more significant to this rivalry given the differing backgrounds of the sides and their supporters. Since 1990 however, the efforts of Wallace Mercer may have actually contributed to the softening of this nationalistic element, refocusing the rivalry on footballing matters, even if nationalism seems almost inescapable at times in Scottish football based on the history of the clubs.
Hibernian were established in August 1875, when Canon Edward Hannan, chairman of the local Catholic Young Men’s Society, launched the team as part of the celebrations to mark 100 years since the birth of the leader of Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, Daniel O’Connell. The club initially required players to be practising Catholics while the club secretary, Mal Byrne, drew up the club’s rules on a document with the motto ‘Erin-go-bragh’, the Irish Gaelic for ‘Ireland For Ever’.
Hibs were first and foremost founded with the intention of generating funds for poor Irish communities who had moved to Scotland and to improve the integration of migrants into Scotland, who at the time struggled with discrimination and prejudice. The strength of ties to the city’s Irish community actually served as a barrier for the club to enter official competitions, with the Scottish FA banning the club from the Scottish Cup, stating that “we are catering for Scotsmen, not Irishmen,” while the Edinburgh FA also moved to keep them out of competitions within the region.
Ironically, it took their now great rivals to help them establish the Hibees as a legitimate club in Scotland, as they went against the guidance of the two associations to offer Hibernian their inaugural match on the Meadows.
As Scottish football began to grow in the late 1800s, it was not uncommon for the two teams to play each other as many as ten times per season in all competitions. As attitudes mellowed to Hibernian, and resistance to the club entering footballing circles decreased, the rivalry between the clubs began to develop. Hearts registered a couple of complaints against their Leith-based neighbours during the early years of the two clubs, and there were reports of fighting at some of the earliest games between the two clubs. After one game in 1877, Hearts captain Tom Purdie was chased through the streets of the capital after refusing a handshake from his Hibs counterpart, although it is disputed whether the chase was actually just a number of disgruntled Hibernian fans who were disappointed to see their club lose.
Despite the rivalry only being a few years old at the time, it already seemed that the fate of the two clubs was intertwined in some ways, partly through the number of meetings the sides had and how close they typically ended up being – but also through the differences in the formation of the clubs. Whereas Hibs were seen as a club for the Irish, Hearts had stronger connections to home.
Hearts were formed in 1874 after a group of men from the Heart of Midlothian Dancing Club were directed to The Meadows by a policeman who encouraged them to take up the game, rather than hanging around on the streets. The aforementioned Purdie was one of the founding members of the club and was its first captain, establishing a strong sense of leadership to help the club develop. During its formative years, Hearts became the first Scottish club to play in England and became one of the premier teams in Scotland.
By the start of the First World War, the club had two Scottish titles and four Scottish Cups to their name. When war broke out, the club was comfortably at the top of the league but as society began to question why footballers should escape going to fight, 16 Hearts players, as well as five hundred of the club’s supporters, enlisted on mass in what is now known as ‘McCrae’s Battalion’. This was the first of the so-called ‘footballers’ battalions’ and was named after charismatic colonel, Sir George McCrae. McCrae saw the establishment of these battalions as a means to encourage men to sign up together, hoping that if they saw their heroes joining up, they might too, especially if they were able to serve alongside them.
While other clubs were also joined the battalion – including Hibernian, Dunfermline, Raith Rovers and Falkirk – Hearts contributed by far and away the highest number of men to the group. Dr. Kelly said in the book Bigotry, Football and Scotland that Hearts fans appear “more comfortable and open about recognising their historical development and original origins”, meaning the club’s supporters are more open about their history than many Scottish teams, and embrace the club’s national identity rather than shy away from it.
Their part in the war may have cost Hearts a league title but the sacrifice of the club is something that fans are keen to remember, and is a defining feature of the club in its own right – a strong sense of national pride. Pride is a key word when thinking about Hearts and almost represents their style of play, with hard work, intensity and industriousness, another stark contrast to their green counterparts who are typically seen as preferring their sides to have a technical, flair filled streak.
Football did not stop in Scotland during the First World War but was postponed upon the outbreak of the Second World War. After Hearts fell away following the departure of those who enlisted, Edinburgh’s clubs won nothing between the two periods, with the Old Firm taking all league titles between 1914 and 1939 bar one, which was won by Motherwell. Somewhat unexpectedly, the end of the war saw fortune swing for the two clubs from the capital, with the east – for a while – posing a real challenge to the western duopoly.
After the end of the Second World War, Hibernian almost stumbled upon one of the most formidable attacking units ever to grace football, with the ‘Famous Five’. Made up of Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond, supporters were treated to a forward line that complimented each other perfectly, playing nigh on Total Football 20 years before the Dutch side of 1974, while each scored over 100 goals for the club.
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The Famous Five: Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond
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Famous Rangers forward Willie Thornton summed up their style of play neatly as “like a swarm of wasps, the way they buzz around you, inter-changing at will”. After winning the Scottish League title in 1948, the grouping was first used together in April 1949, bringing titles in 1951 and 1952, while finishing second to Rangers in 1950 and 1953 by one point and by goal average respectively.
The impact of the Famous Five was more significant even than the trophies. When the European Cup was established in 1955, Hibernian were invited to join and made it as far as the semi-finals before losing to a Raymond Kopa-led Stade de Reims, runners-up to eventual champions Real Madrid. The club became the first British club to play in European competition that year and were well ahead of their time, playing exhibitions and pre-season tours around the world, including a trip to the Maracanã in Brazil. Such was the international impact of the Leith-based club that it was famously included in a 1970s Brazilian football encyclopaedia.
Despite the fantastic Joe Baker coming through not long after Bobby Johnstone was sold to Manchester City, age took its toll and manager Hugh Shaw did not adequately replace the group, leading to the team’s slide down the table. The memory of the unit lives on though; the north stand at Easter Road was renamed after the group and all five men have been inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.
As the Old Firm sought to re-establish themselves at the top, it was neighbours Hearts who posed the greater challenge, winning titles in 1958 and 1960. The 1957-58 season is almost certainly the most dominant season in Scottish football history, with Hearts losing only one game out of 34, winning 29 and securing 62 points. They also hold the honour of being the only team in Scotland to finish a season with a goal difference of over 100, scoring a scarcely believable 132 and conceding 29.
Led by their own ‘Terrible Trio’ of Willie Bauld, Alfie Conn and Jimmy Wardhaugh, the team spread the goals around, leaving opposition defences overawed by the sheer volume of attacking power. While not as renowned as the Hibs grouping that went before them, both title seasons saw Hearts break 100 goals, with Gordon Smith joining them for the 1959-60 title win on his way to becoming the only player to win titles with three different Scottish clubs.
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Hearts’ Terrible Trio
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Smith, a man compared to English greats Sir Tom Finney and Sir Stanley Matthews, is one of the only common links that promotes goodwill between the two clubs, who have had a complicated and fractious duel since their very beginnings. After one year with Hearts, Smith moved on to join Bill Shankly’s title-winning Dundee side to become the only man in Scottish football to win the league with three different clubs; an incredible feat when you add in the fact that none of those championships came with the Old Firm.
The championship won by Hearts in 1960 was the last to come back to Scotland’s capital, with only a handful of victories in the domestic cups since then for each team. It can be argued that the two forces that disrupted Edinburgh’s footballing progression in the late 1800s – the English game and the Old Firm – are still the same ones that have caused Edinburgh football such strife over the decades. Even in the 1880s, Hibs were pillaged as John Glass incentivised six players to move across to join Celtic, the newly formed club modelled on the Edinburgh club, after key backer John Glass saw the players in action in a friendly in Glasgow.
As is the case with every team in Scotland outside of the Glasgow’s big two, the challenge of staying competitive in the face of superior financial resources has been a tough one for Hearts and Hibernian to overcome. With any exceptional players pilfered, success has been hard to achieve and even more difficult to sustain.
In the case of Hibs, the last decade has seen the club cycle through managers regularly, with no-one lasting more than two years at Easter Road since 2006, when Tony Mowbray departed for West Brom. A team that featured Scott Brown, Steven Whittaker, Derek Riordan, Gary Caldwell and Steven Fletcher among others in 2006 was broken up as offers from the Old Firm and England rolled in.
With that, however, came a huge influx of cash (though Caldwell, club captain at the time, left on a free transfer), which was largely used to develop the club’s academy and stadium. Despite this, the playing squad slowly deteriorating as precious little money was devoted to replacing the departed stars. The club was unable to hang onto success stories, such as Anthony Stokes and Leigh Griffiths, and with the managerial merry-go-round at Easter Road, the club succumbed to relegation at the hands of Hamilton Academical after a two-legged playoff ended with a defeat on penalties, despite starting the second leg with a two goal advantage and playing in Edinburgh.
While this was met with a mutinous response from the green half of the city, the maroon half was also contemplating their own future in the Scottish Championship after a valiant fight to stay in the top flight, in the face of insurmountable odds, failed. The club began the 2013-14 season with a 15-point deficit as a result of going into administration. Despite fielding a squad made up largely of youngsters, it took until April 5, 2014, for relegation to be confirmed, with an impressive late streak delaying the slide.
The seven game unbeaten run, which realistically was merely pushing back their relegation date, included a significant 2-0 victory over the Hibees. It was a game which typified both the spirit of that season for Hearts but also the spirit of the club, and which summed up what the Edinburgh derby means.
Going into the game, Hearts needed a win at Tynecastle to prevent their rivals demoting them, adding an extra layer of tension to proceedings. In stark contrast to 1990, it was now the Hibs fans that were revelling in the financial misfortune of their opponents, with those in attendance eagerly waiting to see their side relegate their old adversaries.
With club hero Gary Locke in charge, the youthful Jambos broke the deadlock through 19-year-old Dale Carrick, who lashed in a half volley from eight yards. The boyhood fan went berserk, while other players and the manager ran to the home support to celebrate, the collective mass of maroon going wild. When Billy King, another academy graduate, rounded the goalkeeper to make it 2-0 in the last-minute, the Maroons were safe for another week but almost as importantly had put paid to the prospect of being relegated by the interlopers from Leith.
The prize in this game was not a trophy or even staying in the top flight; both teams were still ultimately relegated at the end of the season. The real prize was just getting one up on each other and maintaining the bragging rights. Historically, success has been thin on the ground for both clubs. With a lack of silverware, fans of both clubs look to the intercity clash as the flash point of their season. No other fixtures on the schedule come close in terms of the energy around the stadia and atmosphere inside them (or attendance for that matter).
Unlike some other feuds, there are rarely trophies up for grabs when the two sides face off – the 5-1 drubbing Hearts put on their green and white neighbours in the 2012 Scottish Cup final being one notable exception. To the fans of both clubs, the derby itself almost becomes a trophy. In a city that has seen many literary maestros, one of the modern-day crop (and noted Hibs fan) Irvine Welsh said this about the Edinburgh Derby in 2009:
“Though the Edinburgh footballing rivalry is fiercer than ever due to both clubs being relatively strong at the same time (a rarity in my lifetime), a discernible empathy, engendered by a shared animosity to the Glasgow power centre, now often runs alongside it. Hibs and Hearts, with their tight, atmospheric stadiums, lodged in the heart of two of the last thriving, vibrant inner-city working-class communities replete with pubs, shops, restaurants and cafes full of genuine football supporters, now seem like the best possible places to watch a game of football. “
Edinburgh is a city of complementing contrasts. The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh are included together on the Unesco World Heritage List precisely because of the fact that they are a beautiful example of how opposites can merge to form a wonderful and complex harmony.
On the one hand, there are the imposing, medieval features of the Old Town, including the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle that have been there almost since the city was first founded. On the other, there are the neoclassical, Georgian buildings that dominate the New Town as the city looked to expand to cope with the ever-increasing volume of people moving there. Somehow, despite the stylistic differences of the architecture, the two blend together to form something greater than the sum of its two parts.
The Edinburgh derby is another example of the Yin and Yang nature of the city. If Edinburgh were a one-club city, as Wallace Mercer had proposed in 1990, it almost certainly would have posed a greater threat to the dominance of the Old Firm. However, to lose that passion and intensity would be an enormous cost.
There is tremendous love for the heritage and history of their respective clubs from both sets of supporters, though there is less of the unpleasantness of the past dominating the present. The Terrific Trio and the Famous Five are long gone and in truth, it is difficult based on recent seasons to see that level of threat coming back to Scotland’s capital. From Edinburgh Castle, it is possible to look down on both Tynecastle and Easter Road – unfortunately it seems that in recent years, Scottish football as a whole has looked down on the two clubs as well.
There is still a hunger around the city though, to eventually match up with the best in the country like the days of old, and that obviously includes beating those across the way. It is a shame that the two clubs will be in separate divisions for the upcoming season as the Scottish game now misses both its premier derby games for the first time in over 120 years.
Neither set of supporters would like to admit it but now, just like back in 1875, both clubs need each other to compete with to bring the best out of them. That is something that Wallace Mercer didn’t understand and for that reason alone, we should be grateful for a campaign that took place some 25 years ago.
By Sean Douglass. Follow @Sean_Douglass