IT was the summer of 1990 and your correspondent was in Italy, far away from the internecine local difficulty caused by Wallace Mercer’s bold proposition
I was at the World Cup. I wasn’t running away from the Hearts chairman’s bid to acquire Hibernian. But never was the opportunity to suffer group-stage agony with the national team more welcome.
The food was great, too. I remember an especially fine meal in Florence, where my wee brother, the QC-in-the-making, was on a post-graduate skive, that beautiful city being my base for the tournament. The penne brought to my table was black and I immediately thought: “Bet Waldo’s never had pasta this colour.” A split-second later came the acknowledgement that he probably had. Mercer was a regular in Cosmo and other swish Italian nosheries back in Edinburgh. He knew his food and he knew his failing businesses ripe for takeover. Or he did, right up until that point.
Mercer was stunned by the opposition to his plan. Billed as a merger, to create one great Edinburgh club capable of challenging Graeme Souness’s glitzy Rangers, it was right away viewed by Hibs fans as a takeover, an attempt to swallow up Hibs, pie-stands and all – to put them out of business.
What would this “joint” footballing enterprise be called – Heart of Hibernian?
Would it, on the field, be ten Jambos and one token Hibee – Andy Goram, say – to comply with takeover law, about which we knew scarily nothing? I remember a friend likening the situation to mergers of his favourite comics. Suddenly it would be “Hotspur incorporating Hornet”. Then each passing year Hornet’s prominence on the masthead would reduce and reduce. “This is going to be ‘Hearts incorporating Hibs’,” he said, “and one day we’ll have fallen right off the sign above the stadium, the headed notepaper, everything. We’ll become the Boscombe Athletic of Scottish football. Who remembers the other half of Bournemouth’s name now?”
The Hibs faithful wondered what the nine circles of hell would look like. Perhaps the sixth would be turning up at Tynecastle and finding their passes were no longer valid (and, despite Easter Road’s far bonnier vistas of extinct volcano and sea, Tynie would be where Mercer’s Edinburgh super-team would play their games). The seventh circle – and there would be no more joy to be had from mention of this particular number – would be manning the protest vigil outside the former Tivoli picture-house on Gorgie Road and throwing classic large-form Hibs programmes from the Famous Five era onto the brazier to keep warm. The eighth would be invites to participate in “living history events” where supporters “keep their clubs alive” by boring each other senseless in meaningless discussions over who’d win a cup featuring Bradford Park Avenue and the rest of football’s disappeared. The ninth circle of hell? Kill us now – please …
I jest, or try to, but it wasn’t funny at the time. And it can’t have been funny for Mercer whose home had to be given round-the-clock police protection while his office in the New Town was subjected to bomb threats and flying bricks. How could such a smart businessman – and as a general reporter on Edinburgh’s Evening News I was often picking up the phone to be told of his latest grand scheme – have underestimated the depth and strength of Easter Road feeling which of course would be amplified more legitimately and passionately through the campaign called Hands Off Hibs?
It might sound simplistic to say that business is business but football is football. Look, though, at the many instances of club supremos who, post-Waldo, have attempted to affect seemingly much less revolutionary change to the football landscape and been greeted with outpourings of pure vitriol. They maybe wanted to alter a crest, change the team’s strip or re-name the stadium. Nowhere near as tectonic plate-disturbing as obliterating the rivals from across the city but the fan reaction has always been the same. Really, these guys should have sought Mercer’s advice because he was always available for comment. A good joke at the time had it that he carried around a card instructing anyone finding him in the event of an accident to call a quick press conference.
Mercer died ten years ago today. There was a good interview last week with his son Iain, written by my pressbox colleague Stephen McGowan. Of the old man’s audacious bid, Iain said: “Looking back now, I think his ego got the better of him. It was one deal too far.” Ultimately, though, Iain reckoned his father did Hibs a favour. Mercer’s opposite number at Easter Road, David Duff, was a “busted flush” and only trouble lay ahead for the club. “What Dad did galvanised their support and if anything they should have been thanking him. The more intelligent ones probably still would.”
This is undoubtedly true. But I reckon those brainy Hibs fans will only do that if their nearest and non-dearest in the west of the capital are willing to bestow gratitude on Vladimir Romanov for his chaotic stewardship of Hearts: all those players, all those Lithuanians, all those boasts, all that madness. Without any of it, they would never have had the chance to help save the club and own a stake, to feel that cramming into the tight-fit ground every second week was vital and would be valued.
Fans are like that, you see. Never willing to give their rivals an inch. You remember 5-1, we’ll remember 7-0. You talk up the Terrible Trio, we’ll tell you they weren’t a patch on Smith, Johnstone, Reilly, Turnbull and Ormond. You brag about the long unbeaten run, we’ll remind you of the equally lengthy list of unpaid creditors. And so on and so on …
At Italia 90, in Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris where Scotland were humbled by Costa Rica, there really was no escaping the kerfuffle happening back in Embra. That splendid stadium has tenement-like towers at each corner, reminiscent of Gorgie’s hugger-mugger but in Pompeian red rather that sooty black, and they were perfect for declaring “Hands Off Hibs” on bedsheet banners.
Then the first derby of the new post-abortive-takeover era of mutual loathing produced a pitch invasion, brawling in the stands, 50 arrests and 17 fans requiring hospital treatment. With Hearts three-nil up by half-time, the police commander struggling to keep order came into their dressing-room and told them to cool it. Any more goals and Easter Road might disappear anyway through spontaneous combustion.
Waldo, the colourful controversialist, watched that one from the safety of a TV studio. I hope he’ll have a great view of the upcoming cup-tie.