LEEANN Dempster has struck those she’s met since becoming Hibernian’s chief executive as a calm and thoughtful individual, which given the club’s propensity for melodrama are pretty useful attributes.
But with 12 minutes left on Tuesday night – and with the team already six points off the top spot in the Championship – a second cup exit in a month was looking likely and she was anything but calm.
“I just thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to meet these people next week’,” she said yesterday.
By “these people” she means the fans. Hibs scored three goals to beat Dumbarton and win the League Cup tie and barring a bad result at Alloa Athletic on Saturday, Dempster will begin the club’s major supporter consultation process with confidence. In fact, even if that game doesn’t go too well, you sense that she’ll be up for the challenge in any case.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “Starting on Monday for three nights, we’re going to have supporters coming along to Easter Road to have their say in the club’s future.”
Three nights might not challenge Kate Bush’s current epic residency at the Hammersmith Odeon but Dempster will arrange more evenings if they’re needed. She’s also willing to meet fans on a one-to-one basis.
“I had an email from a supporter today reminding me I said I’d do this. So we’ll probably arrange that for a match-day.” She better be careful she doesn’t get swamped. Then she’d never get upstairs to see the team put her through the emotional wringer.
Numbers at the consultation nights in the Famous Five Stand will be limited to 200 to make them as intimate as possible, and as useful. Fans have had to register for a place, and declare in advance what’s uppermost in their minds.
“Some will be telling us we need a striker,” said Dempster with a smile. Others are looking at the bigger picture – the running of the club and how the support can be involved – and this is what’s exciting Dempster.
She was asked yesterday how she saw the club functioning in ten years’ time. “I’d be very surprised if independent supporter representation on the board wasn’t both wanted and achieved,” she said. Ten years will almost take Hibs to their 150th anniversary – a date for fans’ diaries to be sure.
“I don’t want to pre-empt what the supporters are going to tell us next week,” she added, “but I think they will want a significant involvement with the club.” Seats on the board? Why not? “Fans see that it needs to be a deeper involvement. For me, representation isn’t good enough. It has to be absolute involvement. People see the distinction there.
“We need to have a conversation and understand the desire but I can tell them that nothing will be off the table as far as the supporters are concerned. Membership, ownership, board representation – everything is up for discussion. But if a supporter is on the board of a football club, it’s my view they have to be completely and utterly involved.”
Dempster, who has experience of the supporter-in-the-boardroom concept from her time at Motherwell, is the new face of Hibs behind the scenes. Some fans reckon the club got too fond of operating in the shadows, despite the efforts of Sir Tom Farmer, the major chairman, in saving it from extinction, and Rod Petrie, the chairman, in making the books balance. Neither man spoke very much, and frustration at lack of investment in players, the rapid turnover of managers and ultimately relegation boiled over in the summer with protests and fans getting themselves mobilised.
Rather than concede relations between club and fans had broken down, Dempster described a “distance in communication”. In this she sympathised with her employers.
“Sometimes when results are not going your way you put your head down.” But she also understood the passion of the fans. She’s listened to their grumbles at meetings she numbered in “the tens and tens”. Relations weren’t yet perfect but had improved. She said the supporters had shown “great patience” for what she along with manager Alan Stubbs and the new set-up were trying to achieve and thanked them for that.
In her short but incredibly hectic spell at Easter Road, Dempster has also seen a takeover bid emerge and fail. Sir Tom’s position had not changed: if selling was deemed in Hibs’ best interests then it could happen, but he was not actively trying to do this. Dempster said he’d given the consultation process his blessing. She also talked yesterday about exploiting both the stadium and the training complex in non-football ways, as part of a community ideal and to boost revenue. But, she acknowledged, some fans just want that 20-goals-per-season hitman.