Edinburgh businessmen are ready with hard cash to help fund a Hibs takeover once fans show their willingness to wrest control of the club from owner Sir Tom Farmer.
Neil Wheelan, a leading light of the newly-launched BuyHibs campaign, which is aiming to take the Capital club into community ownership, revealed talks are already under way with potential backers – but they aren’t prepared to show their hand until the supporters have demonstrated the strength of their feelings.
Asking Sir Tom to name a “fair and realistic” price, Wheelan claimed the move to buy out the Kwik-Fit founder can be just as successful as the Foundation of Hearts organisation, which persuaded 8000 fans to pledge monthly payments to the Gorgie club as it stood on the brink of extinction.
And while he accepted Hibs don’t face the same threat, Wheelan insisted: “As much as we are not in administration or on the edge of liquidation, I would challenge any Hibs fan to say we are not in a crisis.
“Debt is rising and rising, there’s no investment in the club, and everybody knows that change is needed. We need to find a positive change and we feel this is the only way to bring that. Fans have to take control of the club. It’s difficult, but it’s about being positive, open and transparent – that’s why you’ll find on our website a full Q&A with 50 or 60 questions to make sure everyone can see there’s no hidden agenda. It’s about getting everyone together.”
Wheelan, a director of BuyHibs – the fans campaign led by club legend Pat Stanton – revealed the movement has already written to Sir Tom asking that he and chairman Rod Petrie, who holds a ten per cent stake in Hibs, begin negotiations to sell Hibs, Easter Road and the training centre at East Mains as a single package.
He said: “The club are failing on and off the park and the need for change has never been greater, the club needs a new direction with fresh drive and investment.
“If you look over the past decade at the number of managers who have come through that door, the number of players that have come and gone but the same problem remains. There’s something wrong throughout the fabric of the club and we need to change that.”
Although Petrie stepped back from the day-to-day running of the club as Leeann Dempster became chief executive, a move which has led to changes including a proposal to invite two fans on to the board of directors, Wheelan claimed: “At the end of the day the two people who have control of the club are still there, and I think we are all pretty much sure they control the club.
“Leeann is there to front it, but it is the owners who dictate, and the owners who should be investing in their business. But they haven’t been doing that.”
Wheelan admitted he didn’t know what figure Sir Tom might put on Hibs, although he expected it would be “in the millions”, but added: “I would appeal that it’s a fair and realistic price so that fans can get behind us and that we can use part of the money to give a better budget to Alan Stubbs, who certainly has done a fantastic job.
“The budget the manager has to spend is not enough and that’s embarrassing for a club of our size.”
Asked if BuyHibs had worked up their own financial figures in anticipation of Sir Tom proving receptive to their proposals, Whelean pointed to the “fantastic” response both Hearts and Dunfermline had from their supporters in terms of monthly pledges of cash before insisting a similar scheme would prove just as popular with Hibs fans.
He said: “If we could get 6000 or 7000 people pledging £20 a month, that gives us a real impetus to drive this forward. But until we get a price and know what the owner is prepared to do, it’s very difficult.
“We don’t know if we’d have fans having 51 per cent or 75 per cent until the owner sits down with us, is open and honest with us, and says I am willing to do this, I am not willing to do that.”
Expressing a hope Hibs’ bankers may enter into a “debt forgiveness” deal similar to those struck with Dunfermline and Kilmarnock, Wheelan, who estimates the Easter Road club are in the red up to £9.5 million, posed the question as to whether Sir Tom would be also be willing to do something similar.
He said: “Until the owner meets with us it’s difficult to know. The AGM has usually taken place long before now – the accounts are out long before now – but there’s been nothing. Where’s the transparency? The fans deserve to know what state their club is in.
“The key for us is getting a price – without a price it’s very difficult.”
Wheelan, however, was adamant that once the fans show the appetite for change he expects, then businessmen interested in investing in Hibs will make themselves known.
He said: “The feedback we have had from business people and professional people willing to help us is phenomenal and reminds us of how big a club this can be. There’s a lot of well-known Hibbies out there with money – some who may or may not surprise people – but they want to make sure they are doing it for the right reason, the right intentions and the right people.”
Asked if there might be an “Ann Budge character” out there willing to put £2.5 million into Hibs, the 37-year-old worker in finance and communication replied: “Possibly. At the moment there are talks going on with different people, but it is difficult before you launch because you cannot give them a great deal of information.
“They still want to know the fuller detail – who is involved and how it is going to work –but I think the key thing for anyone getting involved is to make sure it remains positive. I think that’s what Hearts did very well. The Hearts campaign ran for a long, long time before Ann Budge got involved and it may be that we are two or three months down the line before we get the right person.”
Wheelan is convinced there’s huge scope to grow Hibs as a club, adamant there are plenty of disaffected fans desperate to return to Easter Road. Accepting that a change of ownership doesn’t guarantee the success supporters are craving, he said: “If you look at the revenue that comes in there’s nothing to suggest that will fall because of a change.
“A positive change at our club will lead to extra revenue. Look at the number of empty seats – I’m sure we will get thousands coming back through the door. We’ve spoken to businesses who used to be sponsors who won’t sponsor at the moment who will come back and put money into the club. If we have a membership scheme that puts more and more money into the club.
“Turnover is far too low and that’s one of the biggest problems. We need to get that up, make sure there’s more money going to what is important, which is providing Alan Stubbs with a better budget.
“It’s not rocket science – better players on the park, a positive atmosphere, more people through the gate, more money in the bank.”
For further information visit www.buyhibs.org.