THERE have as yet been no talks, formal or informal, between Sir Tom Farmer and BuyHibs, the new campaign group which plans to purchase the Easter Road club from him.
But arm’s-length negotiations got under way yesterday when BuyHibs director Neil Wheelan urged the businessman to recognise that the bigger the price he puts on Hibernian, the less money the new owners will have to build the club back up from its present lowly status.
“I’m sure it’ll be in the millions,” Wheelan said at yesterday’s launch of BuyHibs when asked what price he expected to be asked for the club. “But the more money we have to pay, the less money can get put into building the club back up.
“I would appeal for a fair and realistic price so we can use part of the money to give the manager a better budget. The current budget is not enough, and it’s embarrassing for a club of our size.”
In a sense, Wheelan’s words amounted to a statement of simple arithmetic, and a problem that confronts every would-be buyer of any business. But they were also a clever way of reminding a wider audience of Sir Tom’s ostensibly philanthropic attitude towards the football club he took over quarter of a century ago.
“You said you bought Hibs for the good of the community,” is the message. “Please don’t impoverish that community by demanding so much that we have not enough cash left to fund a long-term recovery.”
While their ideal would be to conduct negotiations in an atmosphere of sweetness and light in which the sole motivating factor is a desire to do the best for Hibs, Wheelan and his colleagues know that Sir Tom and club chairman Rod Petrie may be inclined to play hardball. They also know that the most persuasive argument they can put in favour of accepting their own proposal is to have the maximum number of Hibs fans pledging to make monthly contributions to a new supporter-controlled administration.
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“If we could get 6,000 or 7,000 people pledging £20 a month, that gives us real impetus to drive this forward,” Wheelan continued. “But until we get a price and learn what the owner is prepared to do, it’s very difficult.
“I think we’re very confident [of getting those numbers], because as much as we’re not in administration or on the verge of liquidation, I would challenge any Hibs fan to say we’re not in crisis. There’s a good chance we’ll stay in the Championship, despite the fact Alan Stubbs is doing a fantastic job and things are turning round for us. The debt figure is rising, there’s no investment – and everybody knows change is needed. We need to find a positive change and this is the only way to find it. The fans have to take control of the club.
“It will be difficult, but it’s about being positive, open and transparent. That’s why there’s a full Q&A on the website, www.buyhibs.org, to make sure everybody can see there are no hidden agendas. It’s about getting everyone together.”
As well as wanting the current owner to ask a fair price, Wheelan hopes that the bank to which Hibs owe the bulk of their debt will also act with a degree of understanding. “Hibs bank, to the best of my knowledge, with Lloyds Bank of Scotland. They want out of Scottish football and did deals with Dunfermline and Kilmarnock on debt forgiveness.
“There’s no reason, if we can move Hibernian into a community interest company, why we can’t work with the bank to get the debt as low as possible. I would like [to think], if the bank are willing to take a bath in some of their debt, that Sir Tom Farmer would do the same.
“From estimations, the debt is anywhere between £6million and £9.5m. That’s another thing: the annual general meeting normally takes place long before now; the accounts are normally out long before now. We’ve heard nothing.
“The question is where is the transparency from the club? The supporters deserve to know what state their club is in.”
BuyHibs have not ruled out the possibility of Sir Tom retaining a 26 per cent stake in the club after selling the bulk of his shareholding and do not have a precise percentage they would like to see owned as a block by supporters. The final percentages could be dependent on how many Hibs-minded business people offer to invest in the club.
“There are already people we have spoken to who have money to put behind the club when this takes off,” Wheelan said. “So I would be very hopeful we will get the right people with money to work with us.
“There are a lot of well-known Hibbies out there with money, some of whom may or may not surprise people. But they want to make sure they’re doing it for the right reasons and with the right people.
“It could well be we’re two or three months down the line before we get the right person we’re happy with – not just anyone. We have to make sure it’s someone with the right intentions and the right background.
“Our objective is for the fans to have a greater say. Personally, I don’t want to be on the board of Hibernian. We’d like Pat Stanton to be on the board and we’d like the fans to have a say in who’s on the board and who controls it.
“Wholesale change is needed. Over the past decade, look at the number of managers and players who have come and gone through that door – but the same problems remain. There’s something wrong through the whole fabric of the club.”
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