HAVING carried the day at their own Annual General Meeting with relative ease, Hibernian’s board of directors may well be in bullish mood as they prepare for their share offer to supporters to go live next week.
Instead, they would be well advised to proceed with caution. Launching a leaky ship is always a perilous business.
The board’s offer to sell half the shares in the club via Hibernian Supporters Limited was always going to be approved by a majority of the shareholding, as, between them, owner Sir Tom Farmer and club chairman Rod Petrie hold around 98 per cent of the shares. It became clear at the AGM that those two and their fellow directors can also count on the support of a fair number of individual shareholders. But approving a course of action is one thing. Putting it into practice quite another. As things stand, HSL have little or no hope of coming close to the £2.5million they hope to raise to buy shares which will, we are told, further Hibs’ football ambitions.
Head-on opposition to the HSL scheme is extremely limited in number. Hands On Hibs mustered around 30 people to protest outside the AGM, and other groups such as BuyHibs probably have fewer active members. But, while Petrie in particular appears content to write off those groups as an unrepresentative minority, he has a far more formidable enemy to contend with – apathy.
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This works both ways, of course, and the positive side for the chairman is that many fans who still blame him for last season’s relegation are not so disgruntled that they will actively campaign for his removal. But, on the other hand, neither are they so enchanted by what has happened since that they appear willing to back the board with their cash.
There has been a steady improvement on the field of play since Alan Stubbs became manager, the club’s training ground at East Mains is a far happier place than it was under Terry Butcher, and that has been enough to placate many of the board’s critics. But promotion at the end of the season is still far from guaranteed and, if it does not happen, the mute majority is unlikely to be so enthused that they will dip further into their own pockets to finance the club.
Experience from other clubs – most relevantly, Hibs’ Edinburgh neighbours Hearts – teaches us that only in the event of a life-threatening crisis do fans really dig deep. In the winter of 2012, when Vladimir Romanov warned that Hearts were at risk of closure, supporters raised around £1m. No matter that HSL have already received expressions of interest from 700 fans, it seems unlikely that they will raise anything close to that six-figure sum, never mind the hypothetical maximum of £2.5m.
Every little helps, as they say, and Hibs could benefit from any smaller amount they receive from HSL. But why be content with that? Why not make a real attempt to galvanise the support and raise the whole £2.5m? After all, there would be no threat to Petrie’s position even if HSL did acquire half of the total shareholding. With Hibs chief executive Leeann Dempster on the HSL board, there is a clear link between the club and the new body, and an obvious interest in their pursuing the same course of action. All that would be required for greater unity to be achieved is a more positive, welcoming attitude from the club.
So far, as was evident on Wednesday night, that is not forthcoming. The way in which the AGM was conducted was tantamount to filibustering. There were so many speeches on different matters before the share issue was discussed that many people in the room were eager to stretch their legs and get some fresh air by the time that key issue came up. And, when it was debated, relatively little time was given to a matter which, according to the club itself, is a key part of the radical changes going on at Easter Road.
Petrie, however, acknowledged in a statement to The Scotsman last night that this was a time for unity. He said: “The Club welcomes calls for constructive dialogue between supporter groups including Hibernian Supporters Limited to get behind the Share Issue announced in December last year. Now is a time for unity amongst everyone who cares passionately about the Club.”
Hands On Hibs, for all their vitriolic attacks on Petrie and Farmer, recognised the need for unity yesterday when, in a short statement on their Facebook page, they proposed a delay to the launch of HSL and the formation of a working group “to address the legitimate concerns many supporters have”. They want “to get everyone round the table and find agreement on how the club moves forward. Together.”
The board is unlikely to agree that delay so close to the launch, but it has nothing to lose from showing a far greater willingness to talk about the share offer and other related issues. Indeed, if it refuses to do so, it will leave itself open to the charge that the only supporter involvement it wants is that of fans whose complicity can be assured.