LEEANN Dempster never doubted the passion that Hibernian fans have for their club. From meetings with supporters’ groups to the organised rallies and protests outside the stadium, the early days of her tenure as chief executive were tumultuous.
With their club newly relegated, the Hibs fans were far from happy –but the fact that they cared enough to call for change gave Dempster the hope that things could be turned around. It was always about trying to take that passion and channel it in a more positive way.
Almost two years on, the outlook has shifted, with the team in the League Cup final, through to the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup and, despite the setback of defeats against Morton and Dumbarton, still in with a shout of winning the Championship title or gaining promotion through the play-offs. Last year’s share issue raised £500,000 and, with a new, easier, online process launched last week, it is hoped that even more fans will buy into part-ownership.
But if there has been a mood for change, it was most clearly evidenced by the fans’ rendition of Sunshine on Leith after Hibs’ win over Hearts in their Scottish Cup replay at Easter Road.
“Everybody talks about it and I’ve probably heard it three or four times,” said the club’s chief executive, speaking at the launch of the new share issue, which placed great emphasis on belonging, “but that was the most powerful moment, and I think the context helped: Scottish Cup, Hearts, replay, Tuesday night, floodlights, emotion. This is a new dynamic to me – listen to my accent, I’m from the west coast – but people talk about moments in time in a club.
“I actually went downstairs because I wanted to make sure, belt and braces, that we stayed absolutely within the rules of the Scottish FA because Jason [Cummings] had unfortunately been sent off and he might have wanted to participate in the celebration. I made sure he stayed in then I came out.”
By then three sides of the stadium were in full voice, their green and white scarves held aloft. It was a far cry from the scenes which greeted Dempster at the start of her reign, with the supporters’ rally staged in front of the West Stand just one of the low points. She said: “That was my introduction to the Hibs support! If I am being honest, the emotion that day still resonates with me. It’s almost equivalent to the emotion you saw when we won that game [against Hearts]. It’s about powerfully caring for your team and feeling passionate about something. You’ll hear this a hundred times about how important football is. But it is in the psyche of Scottish people generally, many people live it.
“I never felt any pressure going into that game, I don’t know why. I felt as if we had performed really well in the previous match. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen. I really enjoyed the game and at the end of it I felt it was maybe another tipping point for us. That we are moving towards a more positive future and destination with our supporters.”
Building bridges with the disengaged fan base has been one of the club’s major drives under Dempster. She believes in the importance of maintaining open dialogue with the supporters and never wants them taken for granted. By adhering to that philosophy and trying to give them a product on the park that excites and, she hopes, eventually delivers real success, there is less of an us-and-them mentality and a growing sense that everyone at the club – fans, players, staff – are in it together.
She said: “If you care so passionately about your club that you are prepared to pitch up and have that conversation, then if you can channel that and show change you can see what you got last Tuesday night.
“We’ve tried to be honest, open and transparent with people. We’ve used regular language, we have tried to communicate with them. We have tried to demonstrate our seriousness for our plans for the club. That is opening things like the share issue so there is a much wider ownership. Also the way I think we’ve supported the aspirations of the football department as well. I think all of these things help.
“I knew the challenges ahead when I accepted the job. Intuitively I think I knew what we had to do, which was reconnect with the supporters. Once you make that reconnection it is half the battle and you build trust going forward.
“It wasn’t just me, it was George [Craig, the head of football operations] and Alan [Stubbs, the head coach]. We keep saying we haven’t done anything yet, we’re in the Championship. But equally you feel something good is happening, something positive. And it is really building into a real change for the long term.”
*For more information on the share issue go to www.hibernianfc.co.uk/shares