THERE is not a single Hibs fan who does not bear the scars of the past few years. This season’s relegation debacle simply rubbed salt into long-existing wounds.
The McLean family have been through these wars before. Former chairman Kenny McLean was a prominent figure in the 1990 Hands Off Hibs campaign to repel Hearts supremo Wallace Mercer’s plans to merge the clubs. And when his son, also called Kenny, and grandson, Mark, addressed representatives of the many fans groups who assembled at the Hibs Supporters’ Club on Friday, it was clear that time had not withered the family passions for the Easter Road club.
Like many they have become disillusioned but, having seen how much effort was expended more than two decades ago, they are not willing to allow the club to crumble without a fight.
“Things have imploded. It has to stop. But the only way it will stop is if [chairman] Rod Petrie is out the door,” said Kenny McLean Jnr, whose late father was a former chairman of Hibs.
“I never thought we would ever be back in this position,” said Mark McLean, pictured below. “As a family we have been there, seen it and we have the scars to prove it. That period was difficult for everyone and these kind of things are not nice but lo and behold, here we are again. We are back in the same position where we need to all pull together. We all need to be moving in the same direction for the greater good of Hibernian Football Club. I can’t believe I am sitting here saying that.”
The family are linchpins in a concerted campaign to oust Petrie from his position of power at the Leith club. Having met with Petrie on Thursday, fans’ representatives reported that he refused to walk away from the club. Though he has given up his chief executive role at Easter Road, he remains the club’s chairman. A demonstration is now planned for the ground at 11:30am on Saturday. It is hoped that the show of support will coincide with a meeting with new chief executive Leeann Dempster.
“Whoever comes in as chief executive will get 100 per cent backing from the Hibs supporters because the Hibs supporters are fair and honest people,” said Mark, but he emphasised that did not diminish the desire to move Petrie out of the door.
“As long as Rod Petrie is still involved in the football club, in any capacity, he will, I think, always have the ruling vote on everything. While he is still there, the supporters who have lost all trust will continue to not have faith. But as far as Leeann Dempster goes, she has managed a club successfully at Motherwell, who have consistently finished in the upper echelons of the league. She doesn’t need Rod Petrie sitting on her shoulder, she doesn’t need his guidance. She is experienced and has a good track record, so let’s just let her get on with the job in hand.”
Kenny McLean Jnr said: “My father was a great, great friend of Alex Ferguson and if it is good enough for Alex Ferguson then it’s good enough for us. He said the most important relationship at any club is between the chairman and the manager. That is paramount to how successful that football club is. So Rod Petrie has to go. We will back this lady [Dempster] and we hope she does extremely well but we want him out. End of story.” He said that despite comments in a statement issued by the club, there was no coordinated drive to starve Hibs of the fans’ finance. He and his family have already renewed their season tickets for the new term in the Championship, although they admit it is with a sense of dread and trepidation, but he warned that reduced income would be an unwelcome byproduct of the current antipathy felt by supporters towards the man he insists has outstayed his welcome.
“Hibs have always been a traditional Scottish football club with a large support but that has withered away over years and years and years, and this is no knee-jerk reaction to what happened against Hamilton Academical. This has been coming a long time.
“This is my personal opinion, nothing to do with the campaign, but the day that Rod Petrie met the players behind the back of the then manager, John Collins, is the day the club started to go rapidly downhill.
“We thought it had culminated in the cup final against the Hearts, 5-1, disastrous! Then there was 9-0 aggregate against Malmö and let’s remember it wasn’t Man United or Bayern Munich or AC Milan, it was Malmö.
“And then we had Hamilton Academical, who came and played us off the park. I went home last Sunday and I was devastated. It’s sad. But the problem for us is that if Rod Petrie stays then I think the supporters will stay away in their numbers. I’m 65 years old and I now know more Hibs supporters who don’t go than do go. That’s a sad reflection.
“Unless he is away and unless there is a major change then they will struggle to sell season tickets, struggle to attract a crowd and struggle with the corporate side of things – everything.
“The people are disillusioned. They need a new direction. They are sick of Petrie rambling on year after year after year. They need a new direction. Douglas Crombe the ex chairman, in an article in The Scotsman, hit the nail on the head when he said we need new blood and fresh money. That sums up the Hibs right now, and I really feel for all the supporters, I really do.”
Dempster must wonder what she is walking into. Given the turmoil and tensions of the past few weeks, she must have checked the small print in her contract hoping for a get-out clause. At the very least she will know to bring an extinguisher with her because it looks like her first few weeks will be spent firefighting.
On Saturday she will face her biggest test. With thousands of fans being asked to turn up at the ground to provide the backing music for her meeting with the fans’ representatives, the new chief executive will have to quickly douse the mounting anger and disillusionment and instead stoke the flames of hope. It’s an unenviable task because Hibs fans are, undoubtedly, scunnered. They are fed up with embarrassments, annoyed that opportunities are missed on and off the pitch, disillusioned by promises unfulfilled and fed up with the managerial merry-go-round, the ever-changing playing squad and the conveyor belt of boardroom suits moved front and centre to serve as human shields and puppet leaders while Rod Petrie, inset, continues to pull strings.
Most of all they are hurting and they feel betrayed. Those are not sentiments that can be reversed easily. The trust is gone and in any relationship that usually proves terminal.
Mark McLean says it is hard to compare it to the feelings experienced by fans as his grandfather battled alongside them to foil Mercer’s merger plan. But he says the one similarity is the strength of feeling. “Back then the sheer existence of the football club was under threat. Whether that’s the case now I’m not sure, but the feeling of the fans is every bit as strong, as far as I can see, as it was back then.
“The passion for the club is there but the disillusionment and sadness are at levels not seen for a long, long time. Who knows what will happen, we will have to wait until Saturday. Let’s see exactly how strongly and how passionately the fans actually feel and let’s see what numbers turn up.
“People are sick to the back teeth now and I don’t think Mr Petrie understands the depth of feeling that is out there just now.”