A sense of incredulity, of disbelief, met the revelation that Hearts owner Wallace Mercer had launched an audacious 6.2 million bid to take over Capital rivals Hibs, his Utopian dream to create an Edinburgh side capable of toppling the Old Firm.
But it was also a move which would, if successful, mean the end for the Easter Road club.
Although it created an immediate shockwave which ripped not just through Edinburgh but the entire country, the bombshell news was the result of five months of clandestine plotting, a cloak-and-dagger operation which could have come straight from the pages of a spy novel.
In the shadows, the plotters spoke in code as they planned to create a new company, Edinburgh United, defined as “Diamond” while Hearts were referred to as “Ruby” and Hibs “Emerald”.
Little did managing director Jim Gray, brother-in-law of Hibs chairman David Duff, and Allan Munro, a fellow director, imagine what was in store as they flew to London, summoned to a hastily-arranged board meeting at the Soho headquarters of Inoco, an international property company owned by David Rowland, the biggest shareholder in the club’s parent company Edinburgh Hibernian plc.
What they did know was that Rowland, a Monaco-based businessman, had decided to sell his 29.9 per cent stake in the club’s parent company, Edinburgh Hibernian plc, and they were to meet the buyer.
As they chatted on their flight south Gray and Munro mused on who the mystery man might be, settling on Robert Maxwell, the controversial newspaper magnate and owner of Oxford United, only to be stunned when Duff, who had been asked into the boardroom, returned to tell them it was Wallace Mercer.
The Tynecastle chairman’s plan, as he put it to his stunned audience, was to combine the clubs, to play in a new stadium to be built on land owned by Rangers chairman David Murray at Hermiston on the city outskirts and to challenge the West of Scotland’s football supremacy.
However, a necessary part of the transition would be the closure of Hibs before the next season and the sale of Easter Road, an unpalatable prerequisite and one which immediately split Edinburgh.
Gray immediately told Mercer: “This could be your biggest mistake, it will never work.”
Dinner at the nearby Hilton Hotel followed with Mercer, said to be in an exuberant and loquacious mood, picked up the 341 bill, the wine having flowed freely, – and the following morning Scotland awoke to the shattering news.
The Stock Market was told: “Hearts have received an irrevocable undertaking from David Rowland’s company Inoco plc to accept their 40p per share offer which values Hibs at more than 6m if the Scottish League approves the deal.
“Hearts believe this is a very generous offer given the financial and share price performance. Hearts are in discussion with the Hibs board with the hope that this will lead to a recommendation of the offer.
“Hearts are convinced that advantages will accrue to both themselves and Hibs and to Scottish football, locally, nationally and internationally from the bringing together of Edinburgh’s two Premier Division clubs.”
For their part the Hibs board – which was later to vote 4-2 against the move, Duff, Gray, Munro and Rowland’s first wife Sheila saying “no” while Rowland and his associate Jeremy James said “yes” – were bound by market regulations to say nothing, much as they wanted to voice their opposition. One source close to the action at the time said: “I think the fans were confused, they were wondering why the directors were not screaming what they were screaming.
“But they had to be professional and, I think, the press began to understand that certain things had to happen in a certain order.”
Like the vast majority of Hibs supporters, Tom O’Malley, who would later become chairman of the club, greeted Mercer’s announcement with a scepticism which quickly turned to anger.
Then head teacher of St David’s RC High School at Dalkeith, O’Malley recalled: “We did not know the fine details of the bid at that point, we didn’t know whether it was to be a merger or total extinction.
“It soon became clear it meant the effective elimination of Hibernian Football Club from the Scottish football map. “Mobile phones weren’t so much in evidence then but the lines were on fire with everyone trying to find out the latest, the most up-to-date news.”
O’Malley’s story was repeated throughout Edinburgh as stunned Hibs fans slowly but surely came to grips with the realisation that the very future of their club was under dire threat.
Gary Joyce, a lifelong fan and then a post office worker, said: “We didn’t need mobile phones – not that there were many about in those days – the news spread like wildfire. I have to admit my first reaction was that it can’t happen, it won’t happen.
“I honestly felt it would last for three or four days and then blow over, I didn’t think it would come to anything. But you then started to realise how serious it was.”
Fans descended upon both Easter Road and the Hibs Supporters Association clubrooms at Sunnyside in their droves, desperate for information which remained sketchy – but it soon became evident that Mercer’s hope of a swift coup wouldn’t be realised.
Very quickly an action group, Hands off Hibs, was formed with former club chairman Kenny McLean at its head. His son, Kenny McLean jnr, recalled those hours of chaos and confusion. He said: “I was actually made aware of what Mercer was doing by Stewart Brown, the Evening News football writer who lived round the corner from me. He told me Mercer was trying to shut Hibs down.
“At first I thought it was a joke but I phoned my dad and went down to the Supporters Association.
“It was chaos, the place was besieged by supporters desperate to know what was going on. We then went round to the ground itself and there were literally thousands there, it was a very volatile atmosphere, everyone was very angry.
“It was a shambles, people trying to get in and the police pulling them back.”
According to McLean the police were anxious to have the crowd placated, the fear being they might otherwise have a riot on their hands. Naturally it was Duff they wanted but McLean snr addressed the supporters, telling them that as far as he was aware Mercer had 60 per cent of the shares but needed 76 per cent to succeed.
McLean jnr said: “Duff came out, he was surrounded by police and shaking but he got up on a chair and said there and then, if I recall correctly, he would not sell his shares. I believe he was later put under severe pressure to sell but, to be fair to him, he held on to them.”
Duff’s determination not to sell – the chairman telling a leading member of Hands off Hibs “I’ve been stitched up” – proved to be a major stumbling block for Mercer but before then a short but fierce and, at times highly acrimonious, battle was fought both publicly and behind the scenes before Easter Road fans could rest assured their club wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Hearts chairman.
While Hibs fans reacted with fury to the threat Wallace Mercer’s takeover bid posed to their club, the Easter Road players themselves became increasingly worried about their own futures.
As the news broke between seasons, Alex Miller’s players were as much in the dark as anyone else, reliant on newspapers and television to keep them up-to-date with the fast-moving story.
Naturally, the players began inundating their union, the Scottish Football Players’ Association, desperate for answers as the then secretary, former Hibs star Tony Higgins revealed. He said at the time: “I can assure you it is not a pleasant thing listening to a lot of anxious players on the phone, all worrying about their future.
“There are some who have just signed new contracts and they are wondering who will honour them – or if they will be honoured.”
The fears of Graham Mitchell, the SFPA’s representative at Easter Road at the time, summed up the anxiety felt within the Hibs dressing-room with the knowledge that, between them, the Capital clubs had 64 registered players on their books.
He said: “To be honest, when I first heard about it I felt it was a wind-up, that it wasn’t going to happen. But after the initial couple of days you realised this was pretty serious, that it could happen and, when you look back, it came very close to happening. Usually at a football club, and it remains the same today, what happens in the boardroom is kept away from the players. A change of manager can, of course, cause some uncertainty but players know they have contracts.
“But this was different. It was Hearts trying to takeover Hibs so what was going to happen to the players at our club? Would any of us be kept on rather than the players already at Hearts, what would happen to our contracts?
“It was the same with Alex Miller. There could only be one manager and, to be honest, you couldn’t see it being the manager of Hibs.”
A version of this article was originally published in the Evening News in 2017
A message from the Editor:Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.