2015 marks the 25th anniversary of one of Scottish football’s most controversial sagas.
Wallace Mercer, the owner of Hearts, had announced plans to takeover the financially stricken Hibs and merge the two clubs together. He claimed that if the two Edinburgh clubs pooled their resources together to form one club then they could compete against the Old Firm. The plans were extremely controversial; the two clubs hated each other and, if Mercer had his way, it would mean that Hibs would cease to exist.
Hibs were extremely vulnerable. After going from being a private to a public company, the club were owned by a number of shareholders but the men in control had no interest in football and didn’t see anything wrong with Mercer’s bid.
A bizarre venture into property ownership, which involved purchasing bars and hotels in Bath, England, backfired and left Hibs with serious amounts of debt. With the league season drawing to a close in May 1990, Hibs chairman David Rowland announced that Mercer was the ‘mystery bidder’ who was going to save the club.
The football community were completely against it. On the day of the announcement there was a huge meeting at Easter Road and the fans formed a group called Hands off Hibs who, throughout the summer of 1990, fought against Mercer’s plans.
In June, just before the start of Italia ’90, HoH organised a rally at Easter Road. It was attended by over 8,000 supporters as well as local politicians, former players, The Proclaimers and hundreds of Hearts fans. It was a day of pure emotion and the rally became an iconic moment in the fight to save their club.
Although Hibs were winning the emotional argument they couldn’t financially compete with Mercer. When it came down to it, the majority of shareholders were going to accept Mercer’s offer because of the financial incentives.
The fans were in desperate need of money, so they went to local entrepreneur, and owner of Kwik-Fit, Tom Farmer and begged him to bid against Mercer. Farmer was a community man and he had the power to save the communities of Leith and West Edinburgh. He got involved because of philanthropic reasons, not because of money.
HoH now had the emotional argument and the financial clout. Farmer began to buy up shares and Mercer withdrew his bid because he couldn’t compete with Farmer’s money.
“It was bigger than the referendum” explains David Livingstone, a Hibernian supporter for whom the summer of 1990 was a time where the future of his beloved club was plunged into uncertainty.
“It was awful” David remembers. “The fans were powerless. The only weapon we had was the emotional argument. To say that this is for your club, your city, for all of Scottish football. The community of Leith would have lost its beating heart.
“We owe HoH a great deal because they organised events at such a short notice. From a standing start they mobilised very quickly. The rally was an outpouring of emotion. It united the fans against Mercer. HoH also got into the heads of the media and suddenly there were a lot of supportive articles saying ‘this is not good from a social point of view.”’
The saga had created new levels of hatred between the two clubs. When the sides met in the first derby of the 1990/91 season Mercer was advised to stay at home because of threats to his safety and dozens of arrests were made in and around the ground after clashes between fans.
The game has gone down as one of the fiercest derbies in Edinburgh football history, and you can hear David recall the match in greater detail, here.
Just over a year later, Hibs won their first major trophy in 19 years by beating Kilmarnock in the League Cup final. Under Farmer’s ownership there had been a total transformation on and off the pitch. Sir Tom Farmer, knighted in 1997, remains the owner of Hibs to this day.
Wallace Mercer, however, died in 2010 and a week after his death, Hearts faced Hibs at Tynecastle. Even though 20 years had passed since his failed takeover bid, the acrimony towards him from the Hibs fan had not subsided.
“I think we saw a good summation of the feeling towards Mercer that day. During his minutes silence we stood with either our arms folded or with our backs turned to the pitch. We didn’t want to disrupt the silence because a man, who had a family, had died but we didn’t want to stand there and pretend that we liked him. He had tried to take over our club and he didn’t want Hibs to exist.”
In the 25 years since Mercer’s takeover bid, neither Hibs nor Hearts have come close to winning the league, which has been won every year by either Rangers or Celtic, but would Mercer’s proposed merged club have been more successful?
“I don’t think that they would have won leagues,” concludes David, “but I agree that you would have had a more successful club. I feel bad saying that because you would take away the lives of all the people who support Hibs – it comes back to community.”
Prioritising community over business. Take note, modern day football.