Obituary: Douglas Cromb, chairman of Hibernian FC

Douglas Cromb at Easter Road Stadium. Picture: Contributed
Douglas Cromb at Easter Road Stadium. Picture: Contributed
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BUSINESSMAN and chairman of Hibernian FC who played key role in ‘Hands Off Hibs’ campaign

Douglas Watkins Mcleod Cromb, chairman of Hibernian FC and businessman.

Born: 20 March, 1931 in Edinburgh.

Died: 22 January, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 83.

Douglas Cromb never liked the word “fan”, and preferred to think of himself as a supporter of the club he loved with a passion all his days. He was that rare breed, a supporter who ended up as chairman of his club, and by most people’s judgment, Cromb was a fine chairman as well as a likeable and affable man.

Growing up in 1930s Edinburgh, he was actually ideal material to become a fan of Hearts – his father Louis’ inclinations were to Tynecastle, and the young Cromb was educated at Balgreen Primary School and Boroughmuir High School, both somewhat nearer to Gorgie than Leith.

Yet it was to Easter Road that he gravitated, recalling that he attended his first Hibs match when he was 12 while Louis – an officer in the regular army – was on wartime service in the Far East.

He was soon “hooked” on Hibs, and despite his father taking him to Tynecastle for a couple of matches on his return from the services – “the concept struck me as odd,” he recalled in an interview with The Scotsman last year – it was to Easter Road that Cromb cast his loyalties.

After a period in the post-war army, where he served with the Gordon Highlanders, Cromb went into business, though he was never actually a shopkeeper, as was often rumoured among the Hibs fans.

In fact, he built up a successful import and export business, which also diversified into giftware manufacture. Innes & Cromb, headquartered in Gorgie Road, at one time imported material from the Far East and then promptly sold it on to the Edinburgh tourist trade for sale to tourists – many of them from the Far East.

In 1954 he married his German wife Lotti, and theirs was a long and happy marriage.

His daughter Nicole followed her father into the family business and eventually took over from him.

Cromb came to public prominence when he became a director of Hibs in 1988. Long before that, he had formed a friendship and business association with Kenny McLean, senior, and the duo were to play a major role in the Hands Off Hibs campaign in 1990. The late Wallace Mercer, owner of Hearts, had launched a bid to amalgamate the two clubs, though Mercer candidly admitted many years later that he had planned a takeover, not a merger.

With McLean and others such as Hearts fan Councillor Steve Cardownie fronting events, it was Cromb who impressed with his quiet determination behind the scenes that Hibs would not be subsumed.

When Sir Tom Farmer stepped in to rescue Hibs, the Kwik-Fit tycoon’s grandfather having been involved with re-starting Hibs back in the 1890s, he told the directors to elect a new chairman. Farmer, by his own admission, knew little about football, but he knew that Cromb and others did.

According to Cromb himself, the directors had an impromptu meeting outside Farmer’s offices and Cromb found himself elected.

He enjoyed the honour, and soon brought a rare approachability to the task of rebuilding Hibs, which involved him in forming a strong bond with manager Alex Miller. The two men became firm friends and enjoyed a rare trophy success for Hibs when the club won the Scottish League Cup Final of 1991.

Hibs had made it to the final of the competition, then known as the Skol Cup, by beating favourites Rangers in the semi-final. On the day of the final at Hampden Park, Cromb led the large contingent of Hibs supporters as Miller’s men triumphed 2-0 over Dunfermline Athletic before a crowd of 40,000.

It was to be the highlight of his career in football administration, though his talents were recognised by other officials who elected him onto the Scottish FA Council.

Cromb was definitely a “hands on” chairman, once running to provide rainwear to fans who were being soaked at a match, a gesture which earned him the nickname the “Poncho Honcho”.

He also insisted on shaking the hands of all the players in the dressing room before each match.

He also took considerable time to listen to his fellow supporters as Hibs enjoyed an up-and-down time during his chairmanship.

There was no doubt about the most troublesome period, namely season 1996-97 when Hibs were almost relegated, surviving only after Airdrie were beaten in a play-off.

Cromb resigned as chairman after that escape, but continued as a director until the following season when the club’s fortunes plummeted with Jim Duffy as manager, and even after Alex McLeish took over as manager, Hibs were relegated.

In total, Cromb spent almost ten years on the board of Hibs before his resignation. His worst moment had been when his friend Miller resigned as manager in 1996 – he burst into tears when the manager told him.

To the surprise of many of his friends, Cromb was soon back in football as chairman of Raith Rovers FC, and at one time it appeared likely that he would buy the Kirkcaldy club, though that ambition came to nothing.

In later life, Cromb lived quietly in Colinton, his wife passing away five years ago. After a short illness, he died in the Royal Infirmary just after midnight on Thursday morning.

Alex Miller paid tribute to Cromb, saying: “He was very personable and would go the extra mile for people. I recall him scrambling about trying to get tickets for fans who had written to him and said they couldn’t get a ticket. He would always do his utmost to help. “He was very well liked by a lot of people, including the staff and the players, because he was very approachable.

“He was very Hibs-orientated, that was his love. He and Kenny McLean used to go to all the games together for years as supporters and then they both came on the board together. He had supported the club since he was a young boy, so it was a dream for him to become chairman.”

Douglas Cromb is survived by Nicole, his granddaughter Kristina, and by his only sibling, his sister Norma.

His funeral will take place at Mortonhall Crematorium on Friday, 30 January at 3pm. Hibs supporters will be asked to pay an appropriate tribute at the home game against Raith Rovers the following day.

MARTIN HANNAN