How campaign founders kept Wallace Mercer's 'Hands Off Hibs'

Hands Off Hibs leaders on how they mobilised fans to save their club 30 years ago this week

It's 4 June 1990, the Italy World Cup is just days away, but Frank Dougan, Willie McEwan and Kenny McLean won't be enjoying much of it at all.

Instead, the three Hibs die hards will be spending the next six weeks desperately leading the charge of an all-consuming battle to save their beloved club from extinction.

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Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer had just launched his audacious and, as it would turn out, horrendously ill-advised 'Edinburgh United' takeover bid of Hibernian FC.

The Hands Off Hibs campaign beat off Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer's bid to merge with Hibernian FC to form an Edinburgh super-team.
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As the story broke in the News an emergency meeting was called at the Hibs Supporters Club at Sunnyside. It wouldn't be the last.

Frank Dougan, 71, then assistant treasurer of the supporters club, and a future director at the football club, played a pivotal role in gathering the more than 200,000 signatures that would be delivered to Tynecastle and to Mrs Thatcher at Downing Street.

Hands Off Hibs campaigners arrive at Tynecastle to deliver their petition to Wallace Mercer telling him to end his interest in taking over the club.

Speaking to the Evening News on the 30th anniversary of the event, Frank describes the chaos of that first day: "It was absolutely heaving and this was before social media. How it got out there in the way that it did, I don't know.

"There was a feeling of total disbelief. People were genuinely thinking their club was dead."

Hands Off Hibs

With developments moving at breakneck speed, a campaign group was set up. It would be named Hands Off Hibs.

Left to right: Graeme Cadger, Tom O'Malley, Douglas Cromb and Billy McLellan pictured in 1998 with a portrait of Kenny McLean senior, ex Hibs vice chairman and the leader of the Hands Off Hibs campaign.

Edinburgh publican Kenny McLean's late father, Kenny McLean senior, a well-respected man in Hibs circles, was selected alongside legendary supporters club general secretary Bill Alcorn to lead the fight. It would turn out to be a sound appointment.

"The supporters club chairman, Ronnie Ferguson said we need someone the fans can trust and picked my dad," Kenny, 71, told the Evening News.

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"Within a day, we were picketing banks and organising rallies. We got 60,000 signatures in five or six days."

Lifelong supporter Willie McEwan, 68, a former Hibs Kids volunteer who remains active with the club as treasurer of the former players' association, was another who was heavily-involved with Hands Off Hibs.

Willie was tasked with handling public awareness and all that went with it, including making up t-shirts, pin badges, petitions and leaflets, as well as organising what would turn out to be packed rallies Easter Road and the Usher Hall.

Hands Off Hibs, Willie says, brought the Leith community together, with assistance coming from a myriad of sources.

He said: "The amount of help we were getting was incredible. There was a local printer in Leith, Brunswick Impressions, they printed the t-shirts and tons and tons of campaign literature for us at no charge.

"When we had the rally at Easter Road, Joe Baker went on to the pitch and kissed the turf. The reaction to that was something else."

Willie was also instrumental in organising pickets at Bank of Scotland branches. The Edinburgh-founded banking firm was backing Wallace Mercer.

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He explained: "We took about 40 or 50 of the guys go in and open an account then join the back of the queue and close it again.

"We had the Bank of Scotland at the Mound smothered with supporters. It was perfectly legal, but it caused chaos."

Blasting out Hibs anthems across Edinburgh, Willie's open top bus received standing ovations on Princes Street - and even Gorgie Road. A large percentage of Hearts fans and playing staff were against their chairman's takeover plans too, as Frank Dougan recalls.

He said: "The rally in the Usher Hall was phenomenal and I'll forever be grateful to John Robertson and Gary Mackay for showing their support. They ended up getting fined off of Wallace Mercer for turning up."

And not every Hibs Supporters club member missed out on the World Cup. Armed with Hands Off Hibs t-shirts and reams of petition sheets, Frank flew out to Italy.

He said: “We went all over northern Italy and managed to get thousands of signatures from people from all over the world. Hands Off Hibs t-shirts were being gien out to everybody and anybody on the streets of Turin, Genoa, Pisa, Milan..

“The amount the supporters club spent – not that we ever grudged it – but it was in the thousands.

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“Our lives were on hold and I was away from work more than I was at it. The night it all finished, I just sat there and greeted my eyes out.”

Sunshine on Leith

Featuring a host of well-known names and prominent footballers, the rally at the Usher Hall was headlined by The Proclaimers.

The Auchtermuchty twins were involved in the campaign right from the very first meeting at Sunnyside and offered to help out at key moments, recalls Kenny McLean.

He said: "Charlie Reid came over to me and my dad and said, 'listen, this rally at Easter Road, we'll provide all the amplification, we'll provide a marquee for the guests and we'll also help you with anything you need at the Usher Hall'."

One Proclaimers track that was particularly well received at the Usher Hall was Sunshine on Leith. Willie McEwan believes this was the moment the song crossed over to become the club anthem that it is today.

He said: "It was probably the time the song started to resonate with the Hibs fans. It was always looked upon to me as the song that helped defeat Mercer."

Tom Farmer

Among those taking to the mic that night was a city businessman whose grandfather had played a part in saving Hibs many decades earlier.

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While Kwik Fit owner and self-made millionaire Tom Farmer had little interest in football, he was a proud Leither and keenly aware of the importance of the club to the local community.

Sir Tom, or Mr Farmer as he was then, was brought in by Kenny McLean senior. It was this action that would ultimately save Hibs.

"I drove my dad to meet Farmer at Kwik Fit in Corstorphine," says Kenny. "He was probably one of the few guys in Edinburgh at the time who could take Mercer on."

Mercer's merger hinged on Hibs chairman David Duff handing over his 11 per cent stake in the club.

Kenny believes fear got the better of Duff and he wouldn't have sold his shares to Mercer even if he'd wanted to.

"Duff gave my dad his categorical assurance he wouldn't sell the shares," said Kenny.

"I think the repercussions personally for him would've been frightening. I don't know where he would've went. There was a lot of anger at that time."

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In the end, Mercer caved in to the pressure from Hands Off Hibs and removed his mitts completely, enabling Tom Farmer to eventually purchase a controlling stake in the club.

Branding the episode a near miss, Kenny says Mercer's grossly underestimated the passion among the Hibs faithful, but reckons the club came out of the ordeal stronger and more unified than before.

He added: "It was brutality. Capitalism at its worst; non-sentimental. He [Mercer] would have cut off your hand if he wanted it for money.

"After the Hands Off Hibs, though, there was a unity. A togetherness., which showed the following year at Hampden when they beat Dunfermline to lift the League Cup.

"But if David [Duff] had sold, we would have been toiling. Mercer hit the crossbar - it was very, very close."

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