As someone who has long been convinced of the value of football as a positive contributor to society, Leeann Dempster is keen to press home that message.
One of the two Championship nominees elected to the SPFL board last week, the Hibernian chief executive is looking forward to having a greater voice and being in a position to make a more telling contribution.
For some the role is a thankless one, with cynics warning that decent people and logical brains are soiled by the self-interest and “always been” attitude that still prevails too often in Scottish football’s corridors of power. But, as the woman at the helm when the Easter Road club finally overcame a 114-year hoodoo to lift the Scottish Cup, perhaps she is exactly the kind of person needed. The type of character who perseveres.
Her arrival at Hibs two years ago coincided with relegation and unrest, there were demonstrations and demonising as well as dogged demands for answers. She did her best to address them all and rebuild the trust between the board and those in the stands, while also steadying the ship, recruiting well and plotting success.
Promotion has been the primary target since she got her feet under desk and while that hasn’t yet been delivered, she has reinvigorated the Leith side and encouraged the fans to reinvest, emotionally and financially.
The Scottish Cup miracle in May was the coup de grace and served as vindication. Fed up with taunts of “same old Hibs, always bottling it” she was determined to prove that they were not bogged down by history or past slip-ups. She believed and she wanted supporters to start believing again as well.
“If I’m honest, it wasn’t really going through my mind at the time [the final whistle sounded] but for me and the supporters that is something we can all take from it,” said Dempster. “I actually don’t really care what other supporters think but it matters to me what our supporters think and it was about proving to them that it’s not the same old thing.
“I don’t think the people before us had a vastly different attitude and I don’t think the players who were here before had a different attitude but I do think we have created something different and I just wanted to put that across.”
It was forced home along with David Gray’s late winner that day at the national stadium and the turnout for the open top bus parade the following day merely reinforced things and helped make amends for missing out on promotion and losing the League Cup final.
“I don’t think I realised what it would feel like, if I’m being honest,” she added. “If you remember we went through a really intense period of games. We were playing every other day and every game was crucial for us. It was a period of real intensity. That’s what the play-offs are, they are high pressure. And then, add to that the fact we were involved in the cup competition. Although you probably don’t realise it at the time, there is a real dilemma, trying to do the best you can in both. But after losing the play-offs to Falkirk, absolutely, it felt pretty raw. We then had to get everybody up and everybody ready for the cup final, which was eight days later. Intense is probably the way to describe it but I look back on it now and it was also a very enjoyable period because we were going at it right up until the end really.”
Despite the pitch invasion and the subsequent police and SFA inquiries, which Dempster won’t talk about until the outcomes are made public, the behaviour will not be allowed to detract from the accomplishment. The T-shirts the players and coaches donned as they came back out for the trophy that day said it all. The Leith motto of Persevere rarely more pertinent.
“I had been part of the club for two years but the rest of the directors are huge supporters and like every other supporter, they care about the club and I could see the tension on their faces. Everything seemed to have an added edge,” said Dempster.
“We had played Raith Rovers in the January and we had beaten them and Eric Drysdale said to me: ‘Remember the team that puts Raith Rovers out the cup has gone on to win it in the last two years’. I laughed and said: ‘Okay, I’ll take it now then, Eric’. But every game we played, we just ticked along and ticked along and when the winning goal went in against Rangers, two things happened. First of all I felt an overwhelming wave of joy, hope, anticipation and then for the next two minutes I had the most dreadful fear, thinking about how we never managed to hold on against Falkirk and we had a similar experience against Ross County. But I was thinking ‘surely, this time we are due to get something from a game that we feel we deserve something from’. I was actually watching [director] Amanda Jones at the time and she was pacing up and down in front of me with a face that was a mix of joy and panic and when the final whistle went I remember just going to her and seeing her crystalised what it meant for me. She had an unbelieving look on her face.”
Now people believe in growing numbers. Season ticket sales are up by more than 2,500 on last term’s numbers, a sign that those who had lost hope have had it rekindled.
“I have always known the capabilities of this club and we are nowhere near the top end of that at the moment but we are certainly getting back on track,” said Dempster.
Her view of the Scottish game is similar. In the past she has been critical and she had shunned committees and working groups, believing they rarely produce significant outcomes. But now she wants a bigger voice and she wants to play her part in driving the whole game forward rather than just one football club in Leith.
“I think it is first of all fair to say that the game from a financial and sponsorship perspective is in a better position than it has been for some time. I think the leagues are working really well and there is a lot of excitement,”she said. “There is great opportunity for promotion and equally for relegation and that keeps the leagues alive, so I think we have got to give credit where it is due. We have come through a long, hard period and we are now starting to see the SPFL coming into a much more positive period and that is good for them but it is good for the clubs as well.
“We have deals in place until 2020, but the digital and TV side of the marketplace is becoming increasingly interesting and I feel as if Scottish football has to have a real identity and I would like to be part of addressing that. People talk about the English league being the richest in the world or the Spanish or German leagues being the most talented but we haven’t found our voice or our place yet and I think there are great opportunities. I worked with companies for 20 years creating environments people want to be part of and products that people wanted to buy and brands that people wanted to affiliate themselves with.”
It is something she has proved adept at in her eight years in football. “The amazing thing about being involved in football is that people bring you into their lives and they tell you things about family members who are not here or soon not to be here and the joy football brings them and at that point you just feel that you have built something and done something for them. I think it’s really nice.”