ANY hope Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer might have harboured that his sensational bid to take over Edinburgh rivals Hibs might be concluded swiftly and with the minimum of fuss was quickly dispelled.
Mercer himself admitted he expected to "cop some criticism," but the Tynecastle supremo was left "astonished, flabbergasted" by the vitriolic resistance with which he was confronted.
Within hours graffiti had been daubed on the walls of Easter Road, "No sell-out" and "7-0 always Hibernian" mild in comparison to the "Mercer Dies" which had been scrawled by another. But just as quickly anguished Easter Road fans had formed Hands Off Hibs, headed by the club's former vice-chairman Kenny McLean, to lead the fight against Mercer from their base at the Supporters' Association in Sunnyside.
Plans were quickly put in place for a rally at Easter Road the following Saturday, lifelong Hibs fans Gordon Strachan and the Proclaimers, Charlie and Craig Reid, attended the Leith Pageant, television star John Leslie wore a "Hands Off Hibs" T-shirt as he presented Blue Peter and a further rally was held at the Usher Hall.
Former captain Jackie McNamara received a standing ovation after addressing the Scottish Miners' Gala in Holyrood Park while the subject was questioned by politicians, both locally and nationally. Tom O'Malley, secretary of the group and who later became chairman at Easter Road, recalled today: "When you look back on it, the whole thing only lasted a few weeks but it was quite a concentrated period, a hectic time.
"We were meeting almost every night with someone always coming up with another angle. But I think the vast majority of Scottish football was behind us. There were supporters from most clubs at the Easter Road rally and the sight of Joe Baker kneeling and kissing the turf was just wonderful."
Among those protesting that day was Gary Joyce, then just 20, complete with a banner, which he has to this day, reading 'Wallet Mercer-nary, Hands off Hibs.'
"I was there with mates including a Morton fan, a Dundee United supporter and two Celtic fans. There were Hibs fans of all descriptions, those for whom the club is almost their whole life, others who could take it or leave it, but all determined to fight Mercer.
"There were also a few Hearts fans but for everyone who was supportive, two or three were happy to rub your nose in it.
"But what happened then – and the fact we are still talking about it 20 years later shows the impact that summer had – made me so proud to be a Hibs fan. We have a history of standing up for ourselves, not to take things lying down, of fighting back."
At the Usher Hall rally Hearts striker John Robertson, the scourge of Hibs on the pitch, made a surprise appearance in defiance of his boss Mercer.
Kenny McLean jnr, with his father, also Kenny a former vice-chairman of the football club and a leading light of HoH, said: "I'd warned Robbo to be careful about coming along because feelings were running very high and Mercer was giving him a hard time.
"But he said his brother George, an ardent Hibs supporter, had taken him to Easter Road to see Jimmy O'Rourke play when he was a boy and he had to be there. He turned up and was given a rousing reception even although he was killing us on the pitch."
Robbo's brother George was just one of the many who filled the letters pages of the Evening News daily with their protests while a petition signed by thousands was handed in at No.10, then occupied by Margaret Thatcher, the original having been delivered to Tynecastle.
O'Malley said: "We went along Gorgie Road on an open-deck bus. Feelings were a bit strong but Pilmar Smith (Mercer's vice-chairman] invited us in. It was all very amicable, Pilmar was, and still is, a gent. I could never quite fathom his take on it all."
Elsewhere things were less than amicable with a police guard put on Mercer's Barnton home after bricks were thrown through his office window and death threats were received.
O'Malley said: "We heard those reports and while you could almost make a sort of emotional excuse for that, I am not. We didn't know who was responsible and we didn't condone it. It certainly wasn't helpful."
However, while the Hands Off Hibs campaign had a high public profile, the fight wasn't going to be won purely by hearts and minds alone but on the hard, unemotional business merits of the case – and that meant ensuring Mercer didn't get his hands on the 76.1 per cent of the shares in Edinburgh Hibernian plc he was seeking. O'Malley said: "There was a lot of action going on under the surface which most people probably didn't realise. I think that like a lot of people most of us were pretty illiterate when it came to the deeper dealings of the financial markets, shares and the like, and that's where people like Tom Farmer, Allan Munro and Kenny Barclay were invaluable."
Having received an "irrevocable" undertaking from David Rowland, Hibs' biggest shareholder, to acquire his near 30 per cent stake in the club's parent company, Mercer eventually had more than 60 per cent in his favour. Mercer was certainly in the driving seat even when the Easter Road board rejected the 40p a share offer made to their 1,750 shareholders.
Farmer – he had yet to be knighted at that time – soon let it be known he had bought a "substantial" block of shares to help stave off Mercer's advance, his holding rising to 800,000 four days later while the Kwik-Fit chief and his close friend Tom Harrison, owner of a chain of petrol stations in England, eventually ended up with almost ten per cent between them. Help also came from elsewhere, wealthy Borders businessman David Elliott putting together a consortium to buy shares while ex-chairman Kenny Waugh, snapped up four per cent, today recalling: "I spent 250,000 and within days the shares were worthless but we were all fighting to save Hibs."
Ordinary supporters, who were estimated to have between 15 and 18 per cent of a total of more than 15 million shares having bought into Edinburgh Hibernian plc as it was floated, were urged to hold tight despite warnings they stood to lose money by doing so, Mercer's offer far in excess of the 17p low they had once hit.
As the battle heated up 1.2m shares, about six per cent of the total, changed hands on one day, but the key to the power struggle remained Duff's 11 per cent stake with the chairman under severe pressure and knowing he stood to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds if he refused to sell.
Mercer 'astonished' by vitriolic backlash
BARELY 24 hours after unveiling his shock 6.2million bid for Hibs, Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer admitted he'd been stunned by the backlash his audacious move had provoked, writes DAVID HARDIE.
Clearly shaken by the storm he had unleashed, the Tynecastle supremo professed to being "astonished, flabbergasted" as he addressed a press conference in Edinburgh's swish Caledonian Hotel.
Bricks had been thrown through the windows of his city centre office, graffiti decrying him in no uncertain terms had been scrawled on walls, a police guard mounted at his Barnton home and, he later claimed, he had received death threats and his car had to be checked every morning for bombs.
As he prepared to fly out to Italy for that summer's World Cup to cheer on Hearts stars Craig Levein and Dave McPherson who were part of Andy Roxburgh's Scotland squad, Mercer said: "I am astonished, I am flabbergasted at what has happened. This is tribalism and this is what we are trying to get away from.
"I care desperately about football and I care desperately about Heart of Midlothian FC but I care even more desperately about my family. It is unbelievable what has happened. We are trying to carry something through that is about a vision for the future but I am not prepared to sacrifice relationships with my family and with business associates and their reputations to satisfy some who follow a certain football club. Seeing a police guard with dogs on my home and bricks through the window of my office, I have to ask myself 'is this Scotland, is this Edinburgh'? No, this is tribalism. Why has there been such a vitriolic reaction? Is this envy? I do not know."
Mercer insisted he knew exactly what he was doing in launching his takeover bid having thought about it for a month. "I have woken up early asking do you have the courage to do this? But the one thing about having courage is that you always have the courage to fail."
Staunch Jambo Cardownie recalls Hands Off Hibs rally
AMONG those who addressed the Hands Off Hibs rally held at Easter Road at the end of that tumultuous first week was local councillor Steve Cardownie – an ardent Hearts fan despite being a Leither, writes DAVID HARDIE.
As a football supporter first and foremost, Cardownie felt Wallace Mercer had simply got it wrong with his bid to takeover Hibs and as such he decided to speak out both publicly and privately.
He said: "I had some off-the-record discussions with Wallace and I think he himself realised not only had he bitten off more than he could chew, but he'd under-estimated the strength of feeling.
"He, perhaps, thought that kind of rivalry only existed in Glasgow but while the numbers in Edinburgh may be smaller, there's no less passion. You can't condone the actions of some individuals, but I have fond memories of speaking at Easter Road that day. I started off saying I was a Hearts fan – but I fully supported Hands Off Hibs and was against Wallace.
"I saw Hearts fans in the stadium and a lot more have told me since that they would have been there but were unsure of the welcome they might have got.
"I also recall that in those days it was two points for a win and telling the crowd I was supporting Hands Off Hibs because there was no guarantee we'd get seven points out of eight from Airdrie, the team which would have replaced Hibs had they disappeared.
"Joking aside, there's no better feeling as a Hearts season ticket holder to know you are going to be playing Hibs. It's good as a Hearts fan to beat Rangers or Celtic – but even better to beat Hibs."