Misjudged merger only regret of an exceptional life

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AS THE most high profile and newsworthy chairman in the club's history, Wallace Mercer, who has died aged 59 after a short illness, played a pivotal role in the promotion and development of Heart of Midlothian. In the Eighties, it was his vitality which helped revive Hearts when the club faced extinction.

A successful businessman, who re-built his career as a property developer after selling his shareholding in Hearts to Chris Robinson and Leslie Deans, Mercer had just enjoyed his most profitable year as an entrepreneur in 2005.

Sadly, the significance of that achievement was clouded, a few days before Christmas, when it was learned he was suffering from cancer.

Although frail, over the past few weeks he survived long enough to see the birth of his granddaughter, Jessica, enjoy a short visit to Spain and make one last pilgrimage to Tynecastle for the New Year's Day match against Celtic.

He was warmly welcomed back that day by all connected with the Hearts family, where his stock among the club's supporters had risen immeasurably in recent years, partly because of his opposition to playing at Murrayfield.

Respected by Vladimir Romanov, the current owner, as a sage friend of the club, Mercer enjoyed his return to the board-room and was optimistic about the future. Like the Lithuanian banker, Mercer was also seen as a saviour of Hearts 25 years ago, when, thanks to the intervention of Donald Ford, he was persuaded to challenge Kenny Waugh, an Edinburgh bookmaker who went on to become chairman of Hibs, for control of the Gorgie club.

Although Wallace and his wife, Anne, had bought a few shares a year or two earlier, they only chose to become directly involved when the club's bank warned that unless a significant amount of new capital was raised then Hearts might have to close. Mercer was at the Royal Garden hotel entertaining clients in London before an England v Scotland match when Ford telephoned the young businessman and asked him to top Waugh's bid of 255,000. He eventually put down a personal cheque for 265,000 and with 85,000 in support from a consortium was able to buy all the shares after narrowly winning the support of the board.

The battle between Waugh and Mercer for the ownership of Hearts was played out through the media and it was at a supporters' club meeting in Slateford that Mercer's talent for mixing grand gestures with business acumen first made an impression on the media. Later fondly nicknamed by scribes as either the Great Waldo or 'Wireless' Mercer - he once hosted a TV chat show as well as a regular programme on local radio in Edinburgh - Wallace Mercer's approach to running a football club turned out to have more in common with Phineas T. Barnum, the great American showman, than the blazerati who populated the boardrooms of Scottish football at the dawn of the Eighties.

Born and raised in the west of Scotland - prior to taking control of Hearts his only connection with football was that he'd been a milk boy who delivered a pinta to the former Rangers manager Scot Symon - Mercer was just 33 when he took the reins at Tynecastle.

Over the next 13 years, Mercer would call more press conferences than any of his peers and make headlines, some on the front pages of Scotland's newspapers, and many more on the back. If, in the beginning, he didn't know all that much about football, he understood enough about business to immediately ensure Hearts received compensation when Bobby Moncur left the club to become manager of Plymouth. It was the start of a more business-like era.

Otherwise, the early days of Mercer's reign at Hearts were blighted by low crowds, hooliganism, poor facilities and indifferent football. The late journalist John Fairgrieve, in a seminal column, once suggested Tynecastle might as well be turned into a car park. Only when Tony Ford was dismissed and Alex MacDonald, then the Hearts' captain, was appointed as player-manager, did the situation improve.

Mercer and MacDonald were the same age and, thanks to the steadying influence in the boardroom of Pilmar Smith, who would become a lifelong friend, Hearts began the long ascent back to the summit of the game. A natural salesman - he was always referred to supporters as 'customers' - Mercer was brimming over with ideas. Hearts were the first club in the country to admit the unemployed free of charge and the first to raffle a house as a prize in a half-time draw. Within five years, Mercer's Hearts were transformed from the yo-yo club, always bouncing between the divisions, into genuine title challengers.

But for a cruel twist of fate on the last day of the season in 1986 at Dens Park, the outstanding Hearts side which featured John Robertson, John Colquhoun, Gary Mackay, Craig Levein, Sandy Jardine and many other fine players, might have nudged their way into immortality by winning the championship. As it was, Hearts never won a major trophy under Mercer's command and his reign is still best remembered for the divisive attempt to buy Hibs and merge the two clubs. Weary of seeing the Edinburgh clubs play the role of 'nearly men' to the Old Firm as well as to Aberdeen and Dundee United, Mercer believed the emergence of just one professional club in Edinburgh, playing in a new, purpose built stadium at Hermiston Gait, was the way forward.

While there was some merit in this idea, it was not so much a merger as a take-over. Understandably, the reaction of Hibs' followers to Mercer's 7.5million bid was one of outrage. While most of the demonstrations were heated but peaceful, one extremist did smash the windows at his city centre offices.

Years later he told me: "I suppose the scale of the backlash against that idea should serve as a warning to anyone in football that social engineering is not a wise move. Looking back, maybe that idea wasn't thought through properly and I could have done things differently. It's something I regret. That whole episode took a lot out of me and by the time I was 46, 13 years after I first walked into Tynecastle, I was emotionally and physically spent."

If he didn't succeed in bringing silverware to the boardroom, Mercer raised the profile of Hearts as no chairman had done before him. There were tussles in Europe with giants such as Bayern Munich as well as close shaves in cup finals. He also greatly improved the value of the business and was proud of the fact that shares in Hearts bought for 100 in 1981 were worth 750 in 1993.

The sale of his holding to Chris Robinson for 2million and the subsequent legal squabbles between the men was also something he regretted and, during the years when he split his time between homes in North Berwick and Mougins in the south of France, Mercer was a trenchant critic of his successor's business management of Hearts.

Perhaps I should declare an interest here. For a quarter of a century, Wallace was a generous and loyal friend of mine. We wrote a book together, Heart To Heart, which was published in 1988 and were good companions on the golf course, in restaurants and over a glass or two of Sancerre. I last played golf with him in late November at Archerfield where we started planning a golfing holiday to Lisbon in April.

That day we met John Colquhoun, now a successful agent, and Lawrence Donegan, the Guardian's golf correspondent, in the clubhouse and enjoyed a typically robust conversation before lunch about recent turbulent events at Tynecastle.

A man of keen intelligence, sometimes wilful single-mindedness and a wonderfully kind heart, Wallace lived a full and rich life. He was full of paradoxes. On the one hand, he could be quite formal and always preferred writing letters to email. Yet, while he liked to be in control, he had a great sense of fun and was engaging company.

Blessed with a strong marriage to Anne, his loyal partner in business and life, Wallace couldn't have been more proud of his children, Helen and Iain, and his grandchildren, Oliver, 3, and Jessica. His health had deteriorated over the last year or two but the illness which ended his life was only diagnosed in late December. It was typical of this larger than life character, when forced to count the hours rather than weeks, that he should defy the advice of the medical profession last week and jet abroad to enjoy a couple of lunches in Spain. It's fitting to think of him still, raising a glass in fond remembrance.