DCSIMG

Mercer Merger - 20 years on: Wallace Mercer decides to call it quites as David Duff digs in

Hibs chairman turns his back on a major windfall by refusing to sell his key stake in the Easter Road club

• Wallace Mercer was to withdraw his offer for Edinburgh Hibernian

AS June turned into July the battle for the future of Hibs hung on a knife-edge, Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer tantalisingly close to victory but unable to secure the 75 per cent plus shareholding he was seeking.

The major stumbling block as Mercer extended the deadline for his 40p-a-share offer by a week, having gained support from shareholders of 64 per cent of Hibs shares, was his Easter Road counterpart David Duff.

The Edinburgh-born Wiltshire businessman's 11 per cent stake would be enough to take Mercer to within one decimal point of the 75 per cent he needed under company rules to take over and liquidate Hibs in his quest to launch Edinburgh United.

Although under severe pressure to sell and knowing he stood to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds if he refused to do so, well aware the share price in Edinburgh Hibernian plc, which had once slumped to just 17p, would crash again if Mercer proved unsuccessful, Duff stood firm.

Not only Duff, however, stood to lose financially, if Mercer's bid to create a "super team in a super stadium" failed but all shareholders, a fact the Hibs chairman had to take into account in arriving at his final decision.

Among them were Kwik-Fit owner Tom Farmer, his close associate Tom Harrison and former Hibs chairman Kenny Waugh – who had sold out to Duff three years earlier – the trio having built up sizeable holdings in a bid to block Mercer's advances.

An 11th-hour compromise, figures in the Hibs camp apparently suggesting to Mercer that he might take over the property assets of Edinburgh Hibernian plc but sell the name and players back to existing shareholders and others determined to keep the club alive and that Hearts lease Easter Road back to Hibs for as long as it took Edinburgh City Council to upgrade Meadowbank for their use, came to nothing as Duff refused to deal.

Former Hibs chairman Kenny Waugh (pictured left) sold his club shares to Wallace Mercer but David Duff (right) refused

And then, on 13 July, Mercer announced he was dropping his 6.2 million bid saying: "We have won the business argument hands down with support from 66 per cent of Hibs shareholders, which in normal circumstances would be a convincing majority. But, because the Hibs board would not negotiate with us and because my professional advisers were concerned about the perilous financial situation of the company, we have decided to withdraw our offer."

Kenny McLean jnr, son of the former Hibs chairman – also Kenny – who had led the high-profile campaign against Mercer recalled the moment he heard the unprecedented saga was all over, and again it was from the Evening News.

He said: "I was walking down Easter Road to the supporters' club when Rona Boyd, one of the News reporters who had been covering the story, jumped out of a car and told us Mercer had called a halt, that it was all over."

For his part Duff, who questioned Mercer's motives throughout, said: "Nobody can say I have put my own interests before the club and the company. For six weeks my family and I have been through hell. Now the club and the company have a future."

"David was cast as the villain by many," said one close to the action today: "But he knew it was wrong so he did not sell his shares. I think, for all his faults, it says a lot for the guy.

"He walked away from a lot of money. He got himself into a corner but he still did not sell. At the end of the day, whether you like it or not, it wasn't Hands off Hibs that stopped it happening, it was the fact that someone did not sell his shares."

Hands of Hibs campaigners celebrate after Wallace Mercer's bid to buy the club is dropped

As hostile and unwelcome as his move had been, Mercer had, however, exposed the frailty of Hibs' financial position and, while welcoming Mercer's withdrawal, Farmer made it clear drastic changes to the structure of the club would be necessary.

By the end of the month Duff had resigned, replaced as chairman of Hibs' parent company by Alister Dow, a chartered accountant who was charged with the challenge of leading the company, soon to be renamed Forth Investments, complete with that string of pubs and restaurants in the West Country, out of its financial crisis.

However, the true extent of those woes became all too evident the following summer as the Easter Road club was again threatened with extinction, this time to be sunk by the millstone of debt which hung around its neck.

Another fraught summer was to follow before Farmer stepped in with a rescue package, one which has enabled Hibs over the intervening years to become one of the best-run football clubs in the country and one which has been described as a blueprint for others to follow.

 
 
 

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