How the Hands off Hibs movement saved Hibernian and football’s unique history in Edinburgh

How the Hands off Hibs movement saved Hibernian and football’s unique history in Edinburgh

Wallace Mercer buoyantly walked into the room. Nonchalant. Business-like. It was an unprecedented manoeuvre in club football. Accompanying him was another key player in the saga, Rangers owner David Murray. They shuffled some pages, fixed their suits and cleared their throats. They had an announcement to make.

The morning of 4 June 1990 saw the nation wake to the news. Mercer revealed his ambitious “vision for the future that would see one Edinburgh side challenge the dominance of Rangers and Celtic and an end of tribalism in the city.” The idea, in less convoluted terms, was to merge the two Edinburgh sides in a bizarre plan to challenge the dominance of Celtic and Rangers, the latter club being owned Mercer’s cohort in the plan. 

Finances at Hibernian Football Club were failing – there was no hiding from that fact. Resultantly, the capital side were opened up to the possibility of hostile takeover bids. They had to listen. Only weeks before, Mercer and Murray had announced plans for a new stadium complex for Hearts, built on protected land owned by Murray. Now Hibs were involved. 

The plan was based around a modern development complex featuring houses and offices. Without the inclusion of the proposed stadium, given that it was on a protected green-belt, permission would not have been granted for the build. With the stadium, though, the strict planning permission requirements could be circumvented in the £200m project. Lacking any real benefit to public interest, the stadium enhanced the venture with a cultural and sporting dimension.

That’s not what fans saw, though. They saw two clubs being merged together, or more specifically, their own club being lost. Hibs and Hearts are two historically and geographically distinct sides, and although stadium sharing has successful precedents, this felt too personal, too much like a takeover. Delivered in a sterile and indirect manner, the plan placed football at the bottom of the priority list for the new business partners. A means to an end; an extra queen on their board.


Changing Times


Football clubs have changed significantly over the last three decades, both socially and structurally. Where once there were hundreds of owners at a club, there are now only a handful at most, all able to nucleate in one small room around a table. This consolidation of control, both at a local level and up to the very top, teamed with the emergence of football as the global game, has provoked a rapid restructuring of the way clubs run day-to-day. The repercussions have reverberated around the world, possibly nowhere more than in Britain.

Clubs are continuously being streamlined like businesses, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, although few if any businesses have the emotional presence and deep cultural significance of a football club. Making decisions based on business criteria causes a myriad of issues in far-reaching places. In the case of Hibernian, it was almost fatal. 

Through football’s period of modernisation over the decades following the 1980s, clubs switched from associations to limited liability companies. This benefitted the shareholders by giving them the freedom to invest in teams without taking on personal liability for debt.

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Having such a centralised ownership model opens up the top seats to nepotism, meaning the correct due-diligence isn’t always carried out for new members, especially when it comes to a club changing hands where one party is as desperate to get out as the new one is to get in.

During the earliest period of football’s modernisation, the landmark changes created a chasm between fan and club. Feelings of alienation became pervasive on the terraces. It was a time where passion was pushed aside with the view that money could be made – although in practice it didn’t work out as simply as that. 

In these halcyon days, Hibernian faced their most trying period. In 1987, Swindon-based and Edinburgh-born solicitor David Duff purchased the club for £875,000, immediately seating himself as chairman and announcing his brother-in-law Jim Gray as managing director. Despite initial disappointment on the field, with manager John Blackley making way for Alex Miller, another in a string of names over the last few seasons, the club latched onto stability wherever it was to be found. On-field chaos was overlooked on the notion that the club was stable financially. 

The signings of West Ham’s Neil Orr and Oldham’s Andy Goram, for £100,000 and £325,000 respectively, were enough to mask the fact that money was being syphoned from the club. Fans, having endured a torrid time leading up to Duff’s arrival, were happy enough to be blinded by the lights – it was a change, and to most, it seemed like one headed in the right direction.

The following year, Hibernian became the first Scottish club to be floated on the stock market and only the second from the UK. At 55p a share, budding investors from as far afield as Australia and North America bought into the club, taking the fans’ share up to 15 percent. The rest remained in private hands.

Another share release was announced, without raising an eyebrow, in an effort later revealed to raise funds for an investment in a hotel and bar chain in the south-west of England. The Hibernian owners, naively expecting a return of around £800,000 annually from their investment, found out that the chain was actually in receivership, losing around that same figure in its first year of investment. 

Merely two years after Duff’s arrival, and after some short-sighted investments, the club had accumulated an overdraft of £5.5m, an astronomical increase from the £300,000 when he first arrived. As the situation began to unravel, it came to light that the hotel and bar chain that was haemorrhaging the money could be traced back to wealthy financier David Rowland and that it was this man who had propped up Duff’s initial loan for the club. Rowland was to become a key figure in the oncoming events.


Double Agent


Duff, joined by his brother-in-law Jim Gray and with the aid of experienced fund manager Allan Munro, travelled to London for a meeting with Rowland and a prospective buyer he had lined up. They were forewarned that this man might not be to their liking. They spent hours guessing. They never got close. Then Wallace Mercer walked in.

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On the day of the announcement, without any fast-paced information networks, fans poured towards Easter Road, desperate to find out anything more about their club’s future. The news that had shocked the public, and only just made it out, had long been brewing behind closed doors. It was part of a plot worthy of an espionage thriller. It was Machiavellian politicking done right. Or at least that’s what they thought.

Rowland was a ruse for Mercer, a way into the club’s inner sanctum. The Hibs’ board had fallen for the figures. The duplicitous plan hadn’t fully shed its sheep’s clothing at this point, although Duff and Gray could feel the noose tighten thanks to the short-sighted decisions they’d made. Hubris began to feel like the ‘H’ in HFC as the dynamic duo – sure they’d make a quick buck – felt like increasingly powerless pawns in a big boys game. 

Now more than whispers, confirmed reports spread like wildfire through Scottish football’s radio and television outlets. The fallout was at once ugly as it was one of the nation’s defining moments in football. Unsurprisingly, the announcement was met with pitchforks. Mercer had instantly become a bogeyman and symbol of greed in Leith, the independent-minded district with walls still daubed ‘SAY NO TO POLL TAX’. It was once Edinburgh’s industrial beating heart. Now it felt like Scotland’s broken one.

Sports historian and academic Richard Holt, in his 1989 study of sports and society, Sport and the British, wrote: “These inhabitants of big cities needed a cultural expression of their urbanism that went beyond the immediate ties of kin and locality.” Hibernian, despite a century on from their foundation as a community club, was still a pivotal part of society, something Mercer appeared to overlook.

Leith had always been the industrial gateway to Edinburgh. Located to the north of the city, it might as well be separated by an ocean. The area’s proximity to the Firth of Forth made it an excellent port, and was a thriving centre of commercial trade. Originally independent from Edinburgh, it merged in 1920 after a referendum where the people of Leith actually voted against it five-to-one. Overruled by the powers that be, Leith was swallowed up.

Although a once-thriving district, it fell into disrepair after the Second World War, becoming Edinburgh’s seedy underbelly with high unemployment, violence and prostitution. The low standards of living that followed the booming years of trade, vastly different from the wealthy centre just up the road, underlined Leith’s mentality of singularity from Edinburgh. It was hard working and humble to the very core – and it was about to show its might again.


United Rivals


It wasn’t just Hibs fans who were enraged; it was Hearts fans and just about everyone else who had more than a passing interest in football. Scotland’s working-class has an ingrained distrust of unchecked capital that proliferates through their behaviour and attitude. Class, and the effects of solidarity brought on by past shared suffering, was a commonality between the rival sides.

Footballing economist Stefan Szymanski in his book Money and Football states: “It seems plausible that the struggle for control of the city – a phenomenon that can be traced back to Roman chariot racing competition two thousand years ago – plays a powerful role in the psyche of fans.”  

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These races, just like these matches, are a spectacle relevant to the identities of both sets of fans. It was clear that Hearts fans were as uncomfortable with the future prospect as Hibs fans were enraged. 

The unclipped talons of heartless capital had dug themselves in – suddenly gentrification and globalisation seemed very close to home again, reigniting old feelings of distrust. Removing another key pillar of working-class identity, after labour had systematically changed hands over the preceding decades, struck many as personal. Fans dug their heels in.

Amir Ben Porat in his study Football fandom: a bounded identification highlights the effects: “It is argued that the socioeconomic and cultural contexts of identity are dissolving and that globalisation uproots capital, people and symbols and transgresses national boundaries, thereby dissolving the stability of the major bases of collective modern solidarity.” Solidarity felt under attack again. A fractured group is easier to break, so everyone involved at Hibernian, in Leith and Scottish football came together. 

Scotland’s population was wise to these ploys after its landscape was ravished by privatisation during Margaret Thatcher’s era of neoliberalism, when the Conservative government pushed for new laws targeting both union pickets and football hooligans in the same breath. Photographs of Mercer shaking hands with Thatcher were enough to tie the two figures together. In Scotland it might have been safer to be pictured with the devil – the public were once bitten, twice shy. 

Fans of the club had their answer in Hands Off Hibs, a movement born to save Hibernian and send a message – ‘we don’t care who you are, you won’t take our team away’. Their immediacy of formation and bullish attitude towards raising capital invigorated the local Edinburgh community and its businessmen to do the same. Mercer was their enemy, Hands Off Hibs their battle-flag.

As the day of the announcement wore on, fans began to gather around the stadium and former director Kenny McLean took the reins of the newly-formed action group. It didn’t take long for the volatile atmosphere to spill over into clashes. A police presence hardly had the calming effect that was necessary for the situation; instead reinforcing the fans’ feelings of helplessness and estrangement.  

Mercer had 60 percent of the shares, but required 76 percent for the takeover to be completed. McLean addressed the fans with the magnetism of a trade union leader rallying coal-faced workers outside of the pits. He contributed greatly to turning the energy and anger into productive means. Informed and eager to placate fans at risk of a riot, McLean reassured the swelling crowds that Mercer wasn’t yet qualified to take over, based on the number of his assets. Rather, they had a fight on their hands – one that they could win.  

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It was Duff who had control of the remaining privately-held shares, and shaken by the events, he directly addressed the fans, surrounded by police, assuring them that he would not sell. Later, publicly announcing that he’d been used as a puppet. It was bedlam unfolding in treacle-like real-time. 


Sun Shines on Leith


Receiving their first cheque from an anonymous Hearts fan, the Hands Off Hibs association was well underway. The Hibs Supporters Club subsequently made £20,000 available for additional shares, bolstered by Edinburgh businessman and Kwik-Fit founder Sir Tom Farmer who began to invest substantially in the club.

Hands Off Hibs’ presence was ubiquitous around the city and soon Edinburgh itself began to back the club, understanding the cultural implications should one of their oldest establishments disappear. Edinburgh District Council and Lothian Regional Council, alongside numerous prominent MPs, promoted the cause in speeches and newspaper columns. Momentum was rising.

Media coverage was essential and, although the movement never struggled for it, a page here and there was hardly going to be enough. Police, for fear of trouble, rejected a planned march through the city. Instead, the gathering took place in their at-risk home, in amongst the endangered seats and green girders of Easter Road. 

This locational switch packed a powerful sentimental punch. Attended by Hibs’ legends Pat Stanton and Jimmy O’Rourke, The Proclaimers and even Leeds player Gordon Strachan, the gathering crackled with energy as the noise carried itself over the nearby red-brick tenement housing and into the ears of the Scottish public. 

Bedecked in the iconic Hands Off Hibs t-shirts, with fans of various clubs merging in the stands as part of a vast ebb and flow of green and white, impassioned speeches from Leith MP Ron Brown and MEP David Martin were heard, denouncing Wallace Mercer’s plans. The day was given its iconic image when Hibs and Arsenal legend Joe Baker, now well beyond his playing days, knelt down to kiss the turf in a display of passion and respect for the club that he began his career. An emotional rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone rang out through the terraces – a raw display only rivalled by the now iconic 2016 Scottish Cup rendition of Sunshine on Leigh a quarter-century later. 

Journalists and fans were quick to acknowledge the movement’s ability to reconcile rivals and rouse people-power from the capital city. Beyond the love-in, though, more violent elements were at play in the saga, ones that should not be overlooked in its outcome. Hibernian casuals loaned their muscle to the movement: where The Proclaimers brought the love, they’d bring some hate.

Mercer’s house was daubed with vicious graffiti and bullets were sent to his address. The message was clear: keep your hands off of our club. Heavy security was placed around his property around-the-clock. News that Sir Tom Farmer had again bought more shares in the club cranked the pressure to fever-pitch. The assault was coming from all angles. 

For the sale to be legally forced through, the magic number of 76 percent had to be reached. Duff stood his ground, despite standing to make around £700,000 from his shares, and even went so far as to prompt anyone else with shares to do the same, rejecting the hostile takeover. Caught up in the maelstrom, it seems like Duff was a man who quickly realised he was well out of his depth.

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The momentum didn’t abate and as the deadline drew closer for Mercer to acquire his benchmark proportion, the Hands Off Hibs legion ramped up their efforts. Fans took to the streets selling the eponymous merchandise, collecting money in buckets and even picketing the Bank of Scotland offices for days to protest the backing they gave to the bid. Buzzing with hope on the original takeover deadline day of 2 July 1990, politician Margo McDonald chaired a packed-out Usher Hall in the city centre to continue to revolution. 

In attendance was Hearts player John Robertson, who ignored his club’s command not to make a speech as the whole thing began to feel like a footballing Paris 1968, a suspended moment that demanded radical change. Beyond defying the scenario at hand, they were there to make sure it never happened again. Football was to remain as an accessible part of the community, a signifier of one’s identity.   

Mercer’s position was admittedly weakened as he extended the deadline by a fortnight and came in with a counter offer whereby Hibs would remain as an independent club, albeit without a ground. It convinced no one and Mercer, on 14 July, waved the white flag to the masses in the Hands Off Hibs tees.  

The fans could rejoice, safe in the knowledge that they’d keep their club. Furthermore, subsequent bids for other clubs would now be forced into taking the sheer depth of football fandom into consideration. Undermining the grit of a community whose history was at stake was to be Mercer’s eventual downfall. Rather than work with fans, he worked in spite of them.

It has since, sadly, happened elsewhere, most notably with London-based club Wimbledon being moved well out of town and renamed and rebranded as MK Dons. People power rarely wins against big business, unless regulations like Germany’s 50+1 rule are specifically codified for this, or the rare case of Hands Off Hibs.

Before the Against Modern Football movement was branded as such, a prototype of the model came from Scotland in a neighbourhood going through its own, more widespread gentrification process. Emblematic of a perpetually progressive nation, the movement’s ability to resist the takeover was a moment in history that ought to be cherished, yet also remembered with caution for what could have been.

A club is more than its city and its people. Cities often have more than one, so by choosing one, you’re attaching yourself to the particular set of values that the club represents. Without opposition, these values that we choose are far less significant. Hands Off Hibs proved that, as an identity, a community, a group fighting for fond memories shared with family, that rivalries are essential and people-power capable of incredible feats.

A group of ordinary people managed an extraordinary thing. Hands Off Hibs saved their club, but they also helped save their city, with a little help from the sworn enemy. Football, it proved, transcends even itself sometimes. 

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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