Former Hibs chairman says clubs needs new blood

DOUGIE Cromb is showing me round the house he had built when he was the Hibernian chairman.

Douglas Cromb casts his mind back over a lifetime love affair with Hibernian. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Douglas Cromb casts his mind back over a lifetime love affair with Hibernian. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

It’s a grand affair in Edinburgh’s south-western suburbs, although he had envisaged something smaller. “We lived next door and my wife thought we should downsize,” he explains. “ ‘You design it’, I said, but then the damn thing started to take shape. ‘Just how big is it going to be?’ I said, but it was too late. So there are four bedrooms, two lounges, a dining room, kitchen, study, conservatory and laundry room. It’s not any smaller than what we had before!”

Well, the house is still standing and so is Cromb, 83, although his wife Lotti died four years ago so now he rattles around on his own. In the smaller of the two lounges – still pretty sizeable – there are books by Wilbur Smith but also a biography of Gordon Smith, the handsome, flying winger who ignited Cromb’s love affair with Hibs which goes all the way back to the Second World War. And that romance, is it still standing? He may not get to Easter Road very much these days but he still cares passionately about the club, knows what it means to the people, and should they avoid being downsized to Championship status tomorrow, wants them to say “Never again” to the threat of relegation. Or as much as that is ever possible.

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Hibs lead Hamilton Accies 2-0 going into the second leg of the play-off in Leith. The last time they were involved in such a showdown with a team from Lanarkshire was at the end of 1996-97 during Cromb’s chairmanship. Hibs overcame Airdrie with a struggle, our man describing the tension as unbearable. “Sheer hell. We couldn’t contemplate being relegated. I remember at half–time in the second leg, when Airdrie had drawn level and just missed a penalty, being almost physically sick. We got through and yes we did say: ‘Never again’.”

Failing to heed the lessons, Hibs were relegated the following season. Cromb had stepped down as chairman following the play-off but retained his seat on the board. Midway through ’97-’98 he told the other board members he feared the worst under Jim Duffy, suggested a change of manager but was overruled. Eventually Duffy – “a good guy, but a bit of a disaster in the job” – was sacked, Alex McLeish arriving too late to save the club from the third demotion in their history.

So, if warnings were ignored 14 years ago, how can Hibs – assuming they get through tomorrow – put this dismal season properly behind them and become a club worthy of their stadium, training complex, history and ambition? The last one is important here. The fans have the ambition – and often they are ridiculed for being too extravagant in their hopes and dreams – but Cromb wonders about the ambition of the club hierarchy.

“I’m very sad about what’s happened to the Hibs,” he says. “The whole Scottish game is deteriorating, it seems, but Hibs shouldn’t be as dire as they are. It’s time, I think, for new investment, new blood, new people running the club.” Leeann Dempster joins from Motherwell next month as chief executive and Cromb hopes this will lead to further change. “Tom Farmer saved Hibs and that will never be forgotten but I don’t think he’s going to put in any more money.”

What of Rod Petrie, the current chairman? “Rod’s an accountant – that’s his background – and he’s balanced the books so credit to him. He does his best but he’s not a football man.”

Beyond Hibs this is a criticism often heard, usually by those with decent claim to the title and who like to boast. Cromb, like most people who end up in boardrooms, did not play the game or manage a club beforehand – his expertise was in the tourist trade. Unlike most who end up in boardrooms, though, he has proper fan heritage.

“My first Hibs game was in wartime. I was 12 and I don’t think my mother knew I’d gone to Easter Road. Some boys from [Edinburgh’s] Balgreen where I lived got a ‘lift over’ so I copied them. My dad was in the army – India and Burma. Don’t tell my friends, don’t tell anybody, but he was a Jambo. Well, he was one of those queer fellows: Tynecastle one week and Easter Road the next. When he came back I did go to Tynecastle with him a couple of times but the concept struck me as odd.”

In the capital’s Saughton Park it was an epic day if the young Cromb spotted Famous Five wingman Smith. “Gordon would sometimes be out for a walk with his fiancée. The kickabout with my chums always came to a juddering halt. We’d all walk behind him, so we could say we’d trod in his footsteps. It must have been very annoying for him but he never complained.

“What a fantastic team Hibs had then. And in the 1970s, the Turnbull’s Tornadoes side. Sadly there are young folk – those under 30, I mean – who’ve never seen a great Hibs team.

“I was lucky enough to get to know Gordon later. We had lunch not long before he died and I said to him: ‘There’s something I need to know.’ ‘Ask me,’ he said. ‘Was there a game where you dribbled all the way up the park, playing keepy–uppy, bouncing the ball off your head, knee and chest – or did I imagine it?’’ ‘No, that did happen’, he said. ‘At the end I popped the ball into the air for a header only for the goalie to punch it away’.”

Cromb also enjoyed a friendship with Tommy Younger, this one predating the Hibs goalie’s stardom. “A bunch of us used to go to the Locarno ballroom on Fridays nights. After the dancing someone would always buy a bottle of lemonade to share on the way home. The night Tommy found out he’d made the first team he stood under a streetlamp, threw the bottle high into the air and caught it. He was still in the army, of course, shuttling between Easter Road and Germany. He got called Tommy Offenbach because he was ‘often bach’ to play.”

It was in 1988 that Cromb became a Hibs director. This was deep in the midst of the David Duff-Jim Gray era, a time of flash suits and flashier business deals, with supporters suddenly encouraged to check the stock market as well as the league table as an indicator of progress, and to embrace a chain of Wiltshire winebars as they did John Collins, Joe Tortolano and Paul Kane.

Says Cromb: “I was sent down south by Duff to see how some of those bars were doing. In the first one, which was deserted, I introduced myself to the man in charge. This turned out to be Duff’s father. I asked him if he thought business might pick up. He said he wasn’t sure as he’d never worked in the licensed trade before. Needless to say my report back wasn’t positive.”

What was his reaction to Hearts’ attempted takeover of Hibs? “I wanted to wring Wallace Mercer’s neck! We knew each other quite well, bless his soul. He used to come into a restaurant in Colinton where my wife and I often had dinner after games. He’d chat until such time as he spotted someone in a higher position than me and with more money. And then he pulled a stunt like that!”

The audacious plan was another two-legged affair, with Mercer claiming he’d won the business argument only for the fans to clinch the emotional argument and ultimately prevail. But fan power in itself wasn’t going to be enough. “Some of the guys in Leith got hold of Tom Farmer and asked him to help. He did what he could and we survived.” In the summer of ’91 Cromb and others, including Kenny McLean Sr, were summoned to the tyre tycoon’s Roseburn HQ and told to form a new board. “In the street outside the rest of the guys nominated me. I was shocked, but it was a great honour.” Maybe then Mercer would dally longer at his restaurant table, given Cromb had achieved that higher position. Three months after his appointment, Cromb would have been able to say: “Wallace, let me tell you how we won the Skol Cup.”

Cromb smiles as he remembers Farmer’s stern words, re funds. “He told me: ‘There’s your overdraft, don’t ask me for any more’. I think it was £250.” He was chairman for seven years until the relegation season and has a few choice words for some of those with whom he shared the Easter Road posh seats. “Tom came to me once and said: ‘I’ve found our next chairman for when you retire and I want you to take him to lunch’. This was Lex Gold, who the whole time only talked about one thing: Lex Gold. I never took to him.” Farmer also consulted Cromb about the Tom O’Malley’s suitability. “We’d been friends but I said if there was trouble he’d most likely run. He was a schoolteacher, not really a hard character.” But was Cromb tough, given his shopkeeper’s disposition and the fact he was nicknamed Denis Norden? “Oh I could hold my own. I was a Gordon Highlander – best years of my life!”

Hibs at that time seemed to change chairmen as often as they now switch managers. Certainly Cromb says the most important thing a chairman can do is appoint the right manager, something that has proved tricky for Petrie. Alex Miller was in place before Cromb arrived but the pair formed such a strong alliance that when the manager quit the chairman wept. Despite the trophy success, Miller wasn’t universally loved. He’d interrupted a long line of bosses with strong Hibee association and of course he’d played his football with Rangers.

Cromb didn’t actually run a shop. His business life was a bit more interesting than that. He’d venture to the Far East and return with tartan goods which were then sold on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile as mementoes of Scotland, some of course to Japanese tourists. The company is now overseen by his daughter Nicola. It’s in Jambo territory but don’t tell anyone.

At Hibs, Cromb sometimes got it in the neck like Miller. “They shouted ‘sack the board’ in my day too.” He tried to be an accessible chairman, and this is borne out by recent fansite chatter which began by wondering if Cromb was still alive. Once it had been ascertained that he was, there followed a stream of stories about him stepping in to solve mundane issues such as ticket queries, inviting fans to Easter Road to discuss the planned move to Straiton (“A mistake – I’m glad it didn’t happen”), compensating the disgruntled with the chance to watch closed–door games – and running to the rescue of the drookit with rainwear from his warehouse when the stadium was roofless, a gesture that brought him another nickname, the Poncho Honcho.

He laughs when I mention the supporter interaction. “Most of the time it was fans moaning about the team! But I never turned anyone away. Some went and told their pals ‘I got into the boardroom’ or ‘I told the chairman exactly what I thought’ and that brought more but I didn’t mind. It can be hard as a supporter to keep going every week when they can see the club are failing. The fans are the most important people at a club. As one myself, I never forgot that.”

Cromb accepts that Petrie is a different animal and maybe not as gregarious. Well, up to a point he does. “Rod was difficult to get to know when I was there. On the day I left I went into his office and said: ‘I’ve got a tip for you, one thing you must do’. He looked at me funny. ‘Make friends’, I said. ‘You can’t run a club or be in football and not have any’.” Hibs seem to recognise that problems exist. Petrie has urged fans to keep the faith, promising that “the wind of change” would soon be blowing through Easter Road. One of Leeann Dempster’s first tasks will be to “re-engage lapsed supporters”. Of course, some are happy venting their frustrations in cyberspace and don’t seem to miss the personal touch. There are many things about the modern world an 83-year-old man may not understand but Cromb won’t accept that clubs have to be run differently because everything is corporate now – and he still believes in them having a soul, and that this should be displayed at all times.

With perhaps a nod in the direction of the current regime, he says seven years as chairman are “probably about par for the course”. He enjoyed his hugely, regarding it as a privilege to be allowed into the dressing room on matchdays. “I made a point of shaking all the players’ hands before each game. Darren Jackson was always jumping about – I can still see him dancing down the stairs. Keith Wright was a nice, quiet laddie. John Collins was an absolute beast at training.

Jim Leighton was dour but a great ’keeper. Andy Goram got away with a lot but that was because he was a great ’keeper, too. The biggest comedian was Joe Tortolano, an impressionist. Did he mimic me? Oh, once I’d said ‘Good luck’ to them all I’m sure he did!”