WHEN she agreed to become the new chief executive of Hibernian, it is safe to assume Leann Dempster did not even remotely anticipate the possibility she would be taking the administrative helm of a second-tier club.
As she moves into her office at Easter Road to formally take up her duties this morning, Dempster faces a challenge far more demanding than the one which would have been outlined to her when she was first approached to take the job a few months ago.
It is easy to see why Dempster, whose outstanding work at Motherwell has been widely admired throughout Scottish football, regarded the switch to Hibs in clear terms of career advancement. With no disrespect to the Fir Park club, who have been one of the game’s real success stories in recent years, Dempster probably felt there was little more she could achieve with them.
Addressing the issues of consistent under-achievement at Hibs and maximising the potential of what should be one of Scotland’s biggest clubs carries an obvious attraction for someone as driven and ambitious as Dempster.
But the events of the last eight days have placed her task in a very different light indeed. Her tenure now begins at the same time as a supporters’ uprising against the man who recruited her as his replacement as chief executive, club chairman Rod Petrie. Hibs’ relegation to the Championship last Sunday was the tipping point for a significant proportion of the club’s fans who are being galvanised under the leadership of former midfielder Paul Kane.
No-one who attended the launch of their “Petrie Out” campaign at the Hibernian Supporters Association HQ on Friday was left in any doubt about the depth of hostility towards Petrie and the degree of culpability they believe he must bear for the club’s decline on the pitch. That raw emotion will be intensified many times over when a “Petrie Out” rally is staged outside the main stand at Easter Road at 11:30am on Saturday.
Yet as sincere as Kane and his colleagues unquestionably are, the strategy of their campaign is so far lacking in long-term definition. Kane insisted on Friday that there is a “stage two and stage three” of their plans, but was unwilling to reveal them. As it stands, they are holding on to a belief that the strength of their vocal protests against Petrie will be enough to persuade him to sever all ties with Hibs.
To put it mildly, that appears a fanciful notion. As long as Petrie enjoys the unequivocal support of Hibernian’s owner, Sir Tom Farmer – and there is nothing to suggest that is no longer the case – then he is highly unlikely to be moved by public demonstrations against him, no matter how highly-charged or well-attended they may be.
Through their HFC Holdings Ltd company, Farmer and Petrie own Hibs lock, stock and barrel. The 73-year-old former Kwik-Fit entrepreneur holds 90 per cent of the shares, his trusted lieutenant Petrie with the remaining 10 per cent. Unless someone is willing and able to buy Farmer out at Hibs, then Petrie’s position is not under serious threat.
He is a man who has come to value his place in Scottish football’s hierarchy, in which he is currently vice-president of the SFA and chairman of the governing body’s increasingly influential Professional Game Board. A potential successor to Campbell Ogilvie as president of the SFA, it is not a status Petrie will give up lightly.
The 58-year-old is not completely immune to criticism, of course. Many a manager of Hibs has lost his job, often around the time of the club’s annual general meeting, whenever the heat has previously been turned up on Petrie and the board of directors.
His decision to bring Dempster in was something of a pre-emptive strike by Petrie, who has pledged to take more of a back seat from now on as non-executive chairman and allow the new chief executive complete control of running the club.
That has been met with understandable scepticism by Hibs supporters, many of whom find it impossible to believe Petrie will be either willing or able to desist from interference.
As difficult as it may be at a time of such disaffection, however, the Hibs fans may be better served by allowing Dempster time to prove her independence. Those who knew her well at Motherwell are adamant she would not have taken the Easter Road post if she had been anything less than convinced she would have a free hand.
In almost six years at Motherwell, during which she was responsible for every significant executive decision made, the Fir Park club flourished on the pitch despite financial limitations off it. They will play in Europe next season for the sixth time in the last seven years and have just enjoyed back-to-back second-place finishes in the top flight.
Dempster has also proved a sound judge of football managers and, even more importantly, been able to develop fruitful and mutually respectful relationships with each of them. If she can hit the ground running in that respect with Terry Butcher, then Hibs will have a chance of bouncing back next season, even in a Championship race pitting them against Rangers and Hearts.
Hibernian supporters have every right to make their feelings towards Petrie crystal clear. But they must be careful not to inflict collateral damage on the woman who might just represent the best opportunity in many years for them to have the kind of club and team they desire.