Leeann Dempster had the chance to walk away and few would have blamed her if she had.
Having agreed to become Hibs’ new chief executive in April last year, she had expected to pitch up at Easter Road that summer to take charge of a Premiership club, albeit one which was obviously in need of some tender loving care.
Instead, she found a club at war with itself, the air heavy with recrimination as raging fans vented their spleen, furious not only at having been condemned to Championship football but the shameful way in which Terry Butcher’s side had capitulated, relegation the inevitable consequence of a run of results which had seen them win just one of their last 18 league matches.
Given the vastly different landscape with which she was confronted, chairman Rod Petrie – himself very much the target for supporters’ anger – offered the former Motherwell chief the opportunity to change her mind. She declined, determined to begin the task she knew was necessary, a fundamental restructuring of a club which had very much fallen from grace.
Little more than a year on many would agree Hibernian Football Club is a much changed organisation. True, they find themselves again facing a season of Championship football, but the perception, not least among those self-same disaffected supporters, is that the Capital outfit is heading in the right direction, the spontaneous round of applause for Alan Stubbs’ players despite the disappointment of losing their play-off clash with Rangers an indication to Dempster that there is a renewed optimism.
Of course, it’s been tough – Dempster wouldn’t argue otherwise – but she believes supporters will be able to look back on the past 12 months in years to come and recognise it as a pivotal period in Hibs’ 140 year history and one which, she insists, has been “hugely enjoyable.”
The wind of change has blown through Easter Road, most evidently out there on the pitch where Stubbs’ team were seen as the best footballing outfit in the Championship, but change has also been wrought behind the scenes, on the footballing and administration side of the business.
Today, as she reflected on a hectic few months in which fans were offered to take a 51 per cent controlling interest in their club, Dempster said: “We haven’t, particularly in the early part, had our trouble to seek, but massive changes had to happen and it almost helped facilitate them in a way because it was clear to anyone that this club fundamentally needed restructured.
“And to be fair to the board, they knew that, because that’s why they had recruited me in the first place. The relegation just compounded it. There was supporters unrest. They were angry and understandably so, but I think we have come through a moment, a big period, it’s been a massive year in the club’s history and I think we will reflect back, hopefully, positively and say in a few years it was a time of real change.
“There’s been a fundamental restructure. We have a strong football plan, a strong business plan and a strong community plan that we have brought together in one big club plan. If you look at the size of the task at hand when we came in and understand how things were at that particular point, I think I have to be satisfied with the achievements to date.”
The priority, of course, remains – returning Hibs to the top flight. They failed at the first attempt when Rangers and Hearts were both in the Championship, but Dempster was encouraged hugely for the task ahead by the fans’ show of support come the season end.
She said: “There have been particular moments throughout the season when you sense a real change in support in terms of the positivity, belief and trust. It crystallised to me after the Rangers game. Okay, we ultimately didn’t get through in the play-offs, but that spontaneous applause showed there was a real sense of understanding and support from the supporters at large.
“I think they really understood and got the plan at that point and that for me was a big moment.”
If Dempster feels more than a little satisfied she will also, no doubt, feel vindicated in her decision to rebuff Petrie’s offer to reconsider taking the reins at Easter Road.
She said: “The chairman did what he thought at that point was the honourable thing, but for me I had committed myself to the club and I never wavered at any point.
“It was always a big decision for me to leave Motherwell because they are a club I love deeply and genuinely, but ultimately I knew the time was right, I had been there for a long time and you know when you need to go somewhere and try something else.
“I was really, really excited about coming to Hibernian. I was excited about the prospect of what I thought the club could achieve. Okay, we had been in the Premiership, but, to be frank, we had not achieved much in its recent history. Relegation obviously made life more difficult, I don’t know if that’s the right word – more challenging – but it never put me off.”
There was also the initial perception among some fans that Dempster would be no more than a “shield” for Petrie, who would continue to pull the strings from behind the scenes despite his public announcement that, as non-executive chairman of the club, he would be stepping back from the daily business of running Hibernian.
She said: “It was absolutely never the case, never intended to be the case, but I’m sure that was the thought of some supporters.
“The reality is that we are in a massive phase of change at the club and I think we have demonstrated that. People have said you need to walk the walk and I think we have done that to the best of our ability in the last year.
“I can understand why we had the different elements, different factions and different groups because everybody had the club at heart, wanted the club to improve, to be successful, to get out of the Championship and to rise again, as it were.
“So I understand all of that and, in some respects, I applaud them for that, for taking that position. But by the same token, a lot of it was very difficult, very disruptive. However, we are over that now. We have definitely, I think, unified the support base, the Hibernian Supporters Association, Hibernian Supporters Limited, the former players.
“The vast majority of people who come here enjoy Hibernian being part of their lives and they sense we are moving in the right direction and they are forgiving for that I think, I hope.”
Dempster’s own willingness to engage with supporters, whether replying to letters or emails, meeting face-to-face at organised events or impromptu moments in and around the stadium and elsewhere whether on matchday or not, has been welcomed.
“It’s not rocket science,” she insisted.
“People want to come and support a football club, to come to a match and be entertained but they are coming here spending hard-earned money. But a football club isn’t just about finance – it’s emotion.
“Often a lot of your life, your passion is wrapped up in it. We are in a privileged position and we need to respect that. We also have to face into some difficult situations. We have to make difficult choices and I think as long as supporters believe you are going to make more good decisions than bad and that every decision you make is in the best interests of the club, then you cannot be doing too much wrong.
“The ambition at this club is huge.
“The ambition we have for the supporters in this club is huge as well because they absolutely deserve it.
“I think we have made good progress. We all know the pressure we are under and we are under no illusions, but by the same token we to make decisions here to make sure that the club just isn’t prepared for this season – but also for seasons to come.
“The most important bit is we have to work as hard as we can to win this Championship, to get out of it and back into the Premiership, because that’s where big clubs like Hibs should be.”