'Creative accountancy': How Jim McLean - and others - were unlikely saviours of Hibs as Wallace Mercer circled
A statue of Jim McLean is set to be erected outside Tannadice Park, the ground where he created so many miracles in his time as Dundee United manager.
It has now emerged there is perhaps sufficient reason for a tribute to McLean to be installed at Easter Road as well. His part in Hibs’ efforts to thwart a takeover attempt by Hearts – announced thirty years ago today - has been revealed by the club’s then chairman.
David Duff has saluted an unlikely string of heroes – and heroines – who helped Hibs ward off the threat of extinction following Wallace Mercer’s hostile bid. Among them are John Robertson, the Hearts striker who was so often the hammer of Hibs during his two spells at Tynecastle.
Robertson defied Mercer by attending a rally at the Usher Hall organised by Hands off Hibs, the hastily formed supporters' pressure group. Another significant figure is Sheila Rowland, who defied her own husband, Hibs’ largest shareholder David Rowland. They were already separated by the time she became Scottish football's first female director after being placed on the Easter Road board. Sheila subsequently sided with the efforts to rebuff Mercer.
Robertson and Rowland
“She was part of the Rowland dynasty,” recalls Duff. “But she caught the Hibs bug. She loved it. She travelled in the bus, came to the board rooms – those she was allowed into.” As for Robertson, he is another unlikely star. “His family are all Hibees, as everyone knows,” says Duff. “But you particularly respected that he went against his boss (Mercer). He broke ranks and came out and said: 'This is all wrong'. He is certainly a hero.”
Duff also recalled McLean’s willingness to become involved as Hibs sought someone to make an independent valuation of the entire Easter Road squad in a ploy designed to increase the club’s value and create another stumbling block for Mercer.
The Hearts owner originally bid just over £6m for Hibs’ shares. Despite major shareholder David Rowland’s keenness to complete the deal, Duff quickly resolved to do his best to scupper it. One ploy was to prove this offer represented poor value for the club’s shareholders, thereby frustrating Mercer’s plans. The Hibs board could recommend rejecting the offer to shareholders.
In order to be able to do this, and in what he describes as an act of “creative accountancy,” Duff was advised to bring the players’ contracts onto the balance sheet alongside Hibs’ other assets. But they needed an independent verifier to provide a valuation of each player’s worth on the transfer market – step forward McLean. Dundee United were once called Dundee Hibs, after all. His willingness to help thwart Mercer was also perhaps rooted in his distaste for those he perceived as opportunistic plunderers - McLean's cornershop club were trained to take the fight to their supermarket-sized rivals.
The flash Mercer, who McLean later revealed had offered him the Hearts job on two occasions during the 1980s, was never likely to be the Dundee United manager's cup of tea.
“It was really that straightforward,” recounts Duff now, having broken his long silence since his departure from the Hibs board in 1991.
“We sat down and thought we have to value these players. It was a bit of creative accountancy. Players' contracts didn't go onto the balance sheet. But when Tottenham were listed on the Stock Market, Irving Scholar, their owner, was the first to do that.
"He did it to bolster the company's value before floating. We did it to survive."
"There is a process called verification and what it means is everything you claim has to be verified independently," explains Duff. "I could have said that if I were to sell all Hibs’ players tomorrow, I would make £6m. But that’s not verified. I needed someone else, someone who was independent, to come in and verify it.”
Not Souness or McNeill – Jim only one to fix it
Duff and the Hibs directors considered the then Celtic manager Billy McNeill, but it was tricky with the Parkhead club already in negotiations to sign John Collins from Hibs. Hearts manager Alex MacDonald was a non-starter for obvious reasons while Rangers manager Graeme Souness was not likely to be an ally since his chairman, David Murray, was negotiating with Mercer over land he owned in Hermiston, where Hearts were considering building a new stadium.
The respected McLean was the ideal candidate. He had no links with Hibs, and none with Hearts. Although he didn’t know it then, he would later understand how it felt to be on the wrong end of an attempted mugging when Dundee owner Angus Cook made a bid to takeover Dundee United 12 months later.
“What we said was: ‘As a senior, experienced manager will you go through all our players and give us a value of what you think they are worth on the transfer market,'" recalls Duff. “And he did that. And he did that in 24 hours. He was another one who was like: 'what does Mercer think he is doing?'’”
“He was more than happy to help,” he adds. “We sent him up a list of players, including youth players, and he came back and said what he felt their value was. We still had John Collins at that time – just – and Andy Goram, Keith Houchen, and he simply went down the list, one by one.
"It came to around £6m in total," adds Duff. "Because I did that it meant I could say: 'Look, this 40p a share offer undervalues our company'. I was then perfectly within my rights to tell shareholders that this was an unwelcome bid, please don’t sell your shares."
No exaggerations of value
McLean took the responsibility seriously. “He did his job with integrity,” says Duff. “He was not influenced in any way. When the sums came back, we were taken aback on occasion: 'Is that all?! Paul Kane, worth only £200 grand!! He’s having a laugh!’ But it was entirely his opinion and it was conservative. He did not exaggerate in any way whatsoever. I mean, look what he was paying his own players!”
McLean might have been happy to help but he got one over the £6m squad when Dundee United and Hibs next met each other in October at Tannadice. This was a season Hibs feared they might never see. And yet they were hardly making the most of what should have felt like a reprieve, winning only two of their opening seven league games.
Hibs had already suffered a 3-0 home loss to Hearts on an emotional afternoon when McLean’s side, league leaders at the time, administered another defeat on Alex Miller's men.
A last minute own goal from Willie Miller gave United all three points to ruin Murdo MacLeod’s Hibs debut and leave the visitors near the foot of the table.