Mercer made hearts proud

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HEARTS legend Gary Mackay today hailed Wallace Mercer as a man who helped supporters to feel proud of their club again.

Mackay witnessed first-hand the influence that the Edinburgh property tycoon had at Tynecastle when he spear-headed a consortium which took control of the club in 1981.

Mackay was on the books with the Jambos at a time when they were struggling and yo-yoing between the Premier League and First Division.

There was virtually no money at the club and they were struggling to recruit new players because of the paltry wages they could offer in comparison to their rivals.

Attendances were on the wain and there were many who feared for the long-term existence of the club. Mercer, though, changed all that. "He was a larger than life character," said Mackay, Hearts' record appearance holder.

"He allowed Hearts fans to regain some pride in the club because it had become a bit of a joke in the 1970's. Nobody had probably heard of Wallace before he took over the club but it didn't take very long for us to become aware of him.

"He had a real drive and enthusiasm that allowed us to progress as a football club. Everything he did in his life was done in an organised and structured manner and that is how he was able to build up such a successful business portfolio. He brought that to the club and took a very hands-on role. He knew all the right people who could support him and he totally transformed the club.

"He changed the profile of the club and people used to joke that he would call a press conference every day if he could get away with it. He did during the 1980s what Vladimir Romanov is looking to do now. In that sense he was a real visionary."

Ironically, Mercer had no intention of getting involved in the football world until he was approached by former Hearts striker Donald Ford and asked to head a consortium to lead a buyout for the club following a share floatation. He successfully challenged Kenny Waugh, an Edinburgh bookmaker, who later went on to become chairman of Hibs.

At first Mercer only intended to plough 35,000 of his own money into the venture but as things snowballed and he quickly became more immersed in the project he increased his input to 265,000 of the eventual 350,00 that successfully bought the club. But despite already making a name for himself in the business world, at just 34, Mercer felt he was too young to assume the position of Chairman and appointed Alex Naylor instead.

Tony Ford was installed as manager of the club although he would last less than a year as he was sacked in December 1981.

Mercer's early days did not bode well for the future, however, as poor attendances and poor facilities continued and hooliganism was rife. However, all that slowly began to change when Hearts captain Alex McDonald was promoted to manager.

His appointment was to prove a popular one among supporters and while he may not have known it at the time Mercer's decision to appoint "Doddy" was to prove one of the shrewdest he would make during his time at the club.

The wind of change blowing through Tynecastle didn't stop there, however, and just like during the takeover bid Mercer decided he wanted more control and appointed himself chairman in 1982. A period of consolidation followed during which the club was able to safely establish itself as a top-flight side. Then in the 1985/86 season came a day that Hearts fans will never forget when the club lost the championship on the final day of the season as they crashed 2-0 to Dundee at Dens Park Albert Kidd, a name now infamous among Hearts fans, scored two goals in the closing seven minutes to cost Hearts their first title since 1960.

The following week they lost the Scottish Cup final 3-0 to Aberdeen.

That outstanding Hearts side contained the liked of John Robertson, Gary Mackay, Craig Levein, Sandy Jardine and John Colquhoun. "I know that Wallace's biggest disappointment from his time as chairman was that we never got that wee bit of glory that we were all aiming for," said Mackay.

"When we came so close to winning the league in 1986 I know that he took it just as badly as the players."

McDonald remained in charge at Tynecastle for a number of years although he ultimately paid the price for a poor run of results when he was sacked at the start of the 1990/91 season. Later, though, Mercer admitted that his relationship with McDonald was "the most satisfying" of his career.

Joe Jordan was the high-profile name chosen to succeed McDonald in September 1990 but while that may have raised Hearts' profile in British football Mercer's next act would send shockwaves through it. Mercer was a man who seemed to court controversy, particularly during his time with Hearts, but nobody could have second-guessed that he would launch a bold bid to takeover Hibs in late 1990.

His controversial attempt to buy the Leith outfit for 7.5million and close it down leaving only one senior club in Edinburgh actually came close to succeeding.

He planned for them to play at a new, purpose built stadium at Hermiston Gait and dreamed of an Edinburgh footballing force being able to challenge for honours. But supporters of both clubs launched the 'Hands off Hibs' campaign which was supported by high-profile players of both sides with the likes of Jambos' record-goalscorer Robertson risking the wrath of his boss to strand against the plan.

The windows of Mercer's home were broken, graffiti was scrawled on the walls and he even received death threats as Capital football fans united to oppose the move.

Against this backdrop of mass protests millionaire businessman Tom Farmer stepped in to save the Hibees when its owner, the listed company Forth Investments plc, went into receivership.

However, the resentment many Hibs supporters felt towards Mercer, the man they viewed as having tried to kill their club, would continue for many years. Indeed, Mercer himself later admitted the idea was probably ill-conceived.

"I suppose the backlash against that idea should serve as a warning in football that social engineering is not a wise move. Looking back, maybe that idea wasn't thought through properly.

"I could have done things differently and it's something I regret. That whole episode took a lot out of me."

But the controversy that seemed to follow Mercer around was far from over and within a year he had announced plans to decamp the Jambos from their spiritual Tynecastle home to a new 100m "Super Stadium" on Edinburgh's greenbelt. The scenario of moving away from Gorgie, just like more recently, led Hearts fans to voice their vehement objections to suggestions the club should move to Millerhill or Straiton. The plans eventually came to nothing as Greenbelt restrictions forced the club to stay at Tynecastle.

The final managerial hiring and firing of Mercer's reign at the club would see Jordan sacked in May 1993 and former Hearts player Sandy Clark take over. Just 13 months later it was Mercer who would walk out the Tynecastle exit door after agreeing a 2m deal to sell 51 per cent of his shares to Chris Robinson and Leslie Deans. Although he was given the title of honorary president and retained a 25 per cent shareholding in the club until 1998, he was rarely seen at Tynecastle in the years that followed as he lived the life of a tax-exile in the south of France.

However, in the final months of his life he again visited Tynecastle and was regularly seen in the directors' box chatting with owner Vladimir Romanov and his son Roman. Sadly though, with the season promising so much for the Jambos, he was unable to see the end of it. And while his biggest regret was that he was unable to help Hearts win the silverware he so desperately craved, he would have been able to look back fondly at the memories of how he lifted the club's profile immeasurably and took them from perennial relegation battlers to mixing it with the likes of German giants Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup.

Romanov Jnr, Chairman and acting Chief Executive of Hearts today led the club's tributes to him. "Our deepest sympathies go out to Wallace's family," he said.

"I had the pleasure of his company on a number of occasions and found him to be a true gentlemen. He was a great Hearts man who will always be in the hearts and minds of all directors, players and fans."

The facts

1947: Wallace Mercer was born in Glasgow.

1965: Went to London to further his education at college.

1981: On return to Scotland began supporting Hearts as his business interests based him in Edinburgh. Bought 1000 worth of shares.

1981: Former Hearts player Donald Ford invited Mercer to become part of a consortium to try and take over club after a share floatation. Initially expected to pay out 35,000 but ended up paying 265,000 as part of a 350,000 successful bid.

1981: At 34, despite being the majority shareholder, Mercer initially felt he was too inexperienced to be chairman and Alex Naylor assumed the role.

1981: Appoints Tony Ford as manager but he is sacked in December 1981.

1982: Mercer takes over as chairman.

1982: Alex McDonald replaces Tony Ford as boss at Tynecastle.

1985/86: Hearts lose final league game of the season 2-0 to Dundee and miss out on the Premier League title on goal difference A week later they crash 3-0 to Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup Final.

1990: Alex McDonald is sacked after a poor start to the season. Mercer later recalled his working relationship with McDonald as the most satisfying of his career.

September 1990: Hearts turn to former Scotland striker Joe Jordan and he is named manager.

1990/1991: Mercer tries to buy Hibs and merge the two Capital clubs. He receives death threats and has the windows of his Barnton home broken.

1991: Tom Farmer successfully saves Hibs and the takeover fails.

1991: Mercer announces more controversial plans to move Hearts to Millerhill although this ultimately fails.

May 1993: Mercer announces his majority shareholding in the club is for sale.

1993: Joe Jordan is sacked after a poor run of results and Sandy Clark takes over.

October 1993: Mercer drops controversial plans to buy Tynecastle and lease it back to the club. Fans had launched "Hands off Tynecastle" campaign.

June 17, 1994: Mercer agrees to sell his stake in Hearts to Chris Robinson and Leslie Deans ending a 13-year association with the club. The sum for his shares is believed to be between 1.8million and 2m. Mercer is given title of honorary president for his work and retains a 25 per cent shareholding.

May 1998:Sells his remaining 25 per cent stake in the club.

March 2001: After a feud with Chris Robinson he is banned from the directors' box. He takes club to court claiming he is "owed respect".