WINNING the vote at Hibernian’s annual general meeting tonight will be a formality for those in control of the club, as between them Sir Tom Farmer and chairman Rod Petrie have an overwhelming majority of the shares.
Winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the Hibs support, on the other hand, is proving increasingly difficult.
The board of directors will seek approval for their proposed new share scheme, which envisages fans joining together to buy up to 51 per cent in the club via Hibernian Supporters Limited (HSL). Hibs said last week that they were pleased by the initial response to HSL, with around 700 people registering interest.
In addition to setting up HSL, Hibs have renegotiated their debt with the Bank of Scotland and held an election which will shortly result in two supporters becoming non-executive directors. They believe that such moves show they are not resistant to change, and are willing to embrace supporter involvement. Their critics, however, argue that the change is not going far enough.
The bulk of the support has still to express an opinion one way or the other, but a growing number of groups and individuals have expressed disquiet, with many arguing that the HSL scheme does not amount to genuine community ownership. BuyHibs, the group set up to organise an independent fans’ takeover, announced its opposition last week. Activists’ group Hands On Hibs has made its disapproval clear with a poster campaign around Edinburgh. And Mike Riley, chair of the Hibernian Supporters’ Association, also criticised the scheme.
The less-than-independent status of HSL has been one cause of suspicion, but the greatest cause for concern is the debt of £5 million which the club is expected to pay to its holding company, owned by Farmer, over the next ten years. Hibs have said that all money raised via HSL will go towards “furthering sporting ambition”, but opponents of the scheme argue that it is wrong in any case, no matter where the funds come from, for a wealthy individual such as Farmer to be given such a sum.
“Hibs fans are being asked to pay off a debt of £5m created by the mistakes and mismanagement of the board,” Paul Kane, the chair of the Hibs Former Players’ Association, said yesterday. “It is morally wrong.
“The fans have given so much over the years and still they get no clear answers about this debt, the current finances and how they’ll get full control. One thing is for sure – this is not community ownership.”
Glenn Ross of the Hibs Shareholders’ Association called for that group to be revived, and suggested that new investment in the club would be far easier to attract if Farmer and Petrie were no longer in charge. “It [the Shareholders’ Association] has been lying dormant for years because the ordinary shareholders have no say how the club is run,” Ross said. “It is down to two men, Sir Tom Farmer and Rod Petrie.
“This new scheme should carry a serious health warning. Hibs have brought in millions in transfers and property deals over the years yet we find ourselves being asked now to pay off the debt to the majority shareholder.
“Hibs fans don’t trust them to run the club properly. They are not football people and never have been. They should do the right thing and hand the club over with no dodgy deals and leave us to bring in new investors. There are a lot of people in the Hibs community willing to help.”
Former Hibs captain Pat Stanton sat at the top table at the launch of BuyHibs but was subsequently quoted as voicing cautious support for the club’s scheme for supporter investment. Last night he explained that he did not want to definitively take sides, but hoped for the sake of the club that matters worked out well.
“I want to clarify my position as I have seen my name cropping up in the media around the scheme,” Stanton said. “I am not advising anyone either way.
“The bottom line is I want to see Hibs do well. I have friends on both sides, but I’d just say to supporters they should carefully consider what’s on offer.”
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