ROD Petrie must have endured one of the most difficult days in his 15 years as a Hibs director yesterday, as he steeled himself for what is expected to be his toughest public engagement since he arrived at Easter Road – tonight’s annual general meeting.
Having sacked Colin Calderwood on Sunday night, 48 hours before the agm, Petrie may have defused the wrath of at least some angry fans, but tonight’s agm is likely to be a heated showdown between directors and shareholders over the underachieving club’s recent performance on and off the pitch.
It is more than a decade since Hibs supporters have felt compelled to protest against a manager as vociferously as they did on Saturday, as Calderwood’s wretched 13-month reign ended with a 1-0 defeat at home to Dunfermline. They chanted for the manager’s removal, and within a day got their wish, but Petrie and his colleagues in the Easter Road boardroom will have been stung by the realisation that it was not just Calderwood’s head that was being called for.
‘Sack the board’ is a chant that has not been aired at Easter Road since the days of Kenny Waugh’s turbulent chairmanship. Even the disastrous reign of David Duff ended all too suddenly for any orchestrated campaign for his removal, as Sir Tom Farmer rescued the vulnerable club from a hostile takeover bid from then Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer.
Farmer indicated from the start he would always be a hands-off owner, but promised stability and security and financially he delivered, with former merchant banker and accountant Petrie acting as his adviser during the bedding-in process. Petrie was eventually installed as a member of the board in 1996 then appointed managing director the following year to balance the books and restore the club to a firm footing.
He achieved both initially, and since he was elevated to chairman in 2004, the completed stadium and East Mains training ground have proved testament to his work.
Petrie appears to be a natural introvert and he has been careful to stay out of the public glare wherever possible. His tight grip of the purse-strings at Easter Road has also earned him something of a miserly reputation, but while he wouldn’t be a front-runner in a popularity contest, Hibs supporters have recognised the positive contribution he has made, mindful that he has helped steer the club clear of crippling debts and provided security for the future.
As a football administrator, Petrie has also scaled the ladder, rising within the Scottish Football Association to the post of vice-president. With his commitments growing, Petrie’s role within Hibs has evolved accordingly in recent years. He handed over the role of chief executive to Scott Lindsay in 2008, but kept his position of chairman and club figurehead, retaining control of “executive duties” including the negotiation of player contracts and budget control.
Within the past year, the share of Easter Road power was redistributed again – Petrie and Lindsay now supported in the day-to-day running of the club by Fife Hyland, who was promoted from the post of communications chief to managing director. All three men can expect some searching questions tonight about their respective performances in a woeful year which has seen Hibs lose yet another manager, gain and lose an assistant manager within six months, haemorrhage more than 4,000 season ticket holders, and significantly for the first time in seven years – post a financial loss (£900,000).
Only four years ago, the Easter Road board were brimming with satisfaction after a first major trophy win in 16 years, and in the knowledge that the club was going from strength to strength financially.
Some would argue that was the last time Hibs truly had something to boast about.
Within weeks of that Hampden success John Collins, who had picked up the reins from the popular Tony Mowbray and stylishly led Hibs to League Cup glory, was faced with a rebellion by players over his management style – which Petrie heard in the absence of his manager. Frustrated by what he perceived as lack of ambition at boardroom level, and the continued sale of top players, Collins soon resigned, and as a team packed with talent disintegrated, so too did Hibs’ fortunes, first under Mixu Paatelainen and then John Hughes.
Under the latest incumbent Calderwood, the club has made no progress in a year, and his win record of 12 from 49 games has only deepened the gloom.
It is against that bleak backdrop that tonight’s agm will take place. Petrie’s recent record of hiring and firing managers has left him wide open to criticism, and he could be in line for just that tonight, regardless of what level of involvement he has in the recruitment process this time around.
The club pointedly said on its website yesterday that Petrie will not be leading the hunt for a new manger – that duty will instead be undertaken by Lindsay and Hyland. If the underlying intention of that statement is intended to protect Petrie from further scrutiny tonight, it is unlikely to cut much ice with shareholders, many of whom hold their chairman directly accountable for the joyless Calderwood era.
Supporters will also be entitled to ask why Hibs were not interested in letting Calderwood go in the summer in return for significant compensation when he was wanted by Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest – a figure which ironically could prove less than what it might cost to pay the sacked manager in compensation. For a man renowned as a shrewd businessman, it was a surprising piece of business for Petrie to warn off all suitors.
Petrie put his head above the parapet with a passionate and public defence of Calderwood, and compounded an ill-judged statement on the manager’s suitability for the job with an unnecessary swipe at the work of predecessor Hughes. He went out on a limb to back Calderwood, and there can be no denying that the loyalty he showed has backfired spectacularly. Perhaps that is why the managerial search has been left principally to others this time round.
It will not just be the managerial mess that will dominate discussion tonight, however, and the board will have a job on their hands to convince the assembled shareholders that they can be fully trusted to of halt the slide and restore the feelgood factor to Easter Road.
The structure of Hibernian Football Club – which is still owned and under the ultimate control of Farmer – renders talk of ‘sacking the board’ pointless, but an acknowledgement from the board that mistakes have been made, and that bridges need to be built between the club and supporters would be welcome.
Tonight is as good a starting point as any for Petrie and his board to try and tempt back the missing thousands with a positive and sincere message.