Steve Cardownie: The derby match that survived historic threat

Easter Road - the fans reaction to Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer's bid to merge with Hibernian FC
Easter Road - the fans reaction to Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer's bid to merge with Hibernian FC
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Tonight, in front of a full house at Easter Road, Hibs will host Hearts in the first derby of the season.

However, if a certain Wallace Mercer had achieved his goal of taking over Hibs back in 1990, this fixture would have been consigned to the history books.

It was on June 4 that year that Mercer announced that he had tabled a bid of £6.2 million to take over the club, stating that his vision for the future “would see one Edinburgh side challenge the dominance of Rangers and Celtic and an end to tribalism in the city.”

Much has been written about this episode over the years and I was able to experience many of the events as they unfolded from the council’s perspective.

The council, as representatives of citizens who supported both teams, recognised that it had a right, if not a duty, to intervene and involve itself in this matter. It was felt that this particular move was not in the best interests of the city and that it should, therefore be opposed.

Several meetings were held in the City Chambers with representatives of both clubs and as vice-convenor of the Recreation Committee I was asked to articulate the council’s views throughout the campaign.

I was fortunate to be asked to be one of the speakers at the major protest rally held in Easter Road on the Saturday following Mercer’s press conference where I stated my own personal position as well as that of the council.

I explained that I was born and bred in Leith and totally opposed to the attempt to kill off this football club.

There were quite a few speakers that day and the greatest cheer was reserved for the former Hibs star Joe Baker who, at the conclusion of his contribution, knelt down and kissed the turf.

There were also many fans of different clubs there that day, including Hearts, who wanted to demonstrate their support for the ‘Hands off Hibs’ campaign.

A further rally was held in the Usher Hall where I sat alongside Tom Farmer and we were delighted to see John Robertson, Hearts’ prolific goal scorer, speak from the stage against the proposed take over.

The council had made it clear to the Hibs and Hearts directors where it stood on the issue and I was given permission to offer Hibs the use of Meadowbank Stadium, should Wallace Mercer gain control of Easter Road stadium, which would have allowed them to honour their fixture requirements if the football authorities would sanction such a move.

But Mercer, unable to acquire 76% of the shares to legally force through a sale finally withdrew his bid on 14 July that year. Wallace’s bid did bring some unintended consequences, however, in that Hibs’ precarious financial position and questionable property deals were fully and publicly exposed, which led to the acquisition of the club by Sir Tom Farmer.

Now, with record season ticket sales at both clubs, with state-of-the-art training and coaching facilities and with modern stadiums at Easter Road and Tynecastle Park the future looks healthy.

Tonight’s game promises to be an exciting affair, but it is and always will be a game. We all know the importance attached to beating your city rivals but as the ‘Hands off Hibs’ campaign demonstrated it was the support of ‘The Beautiful Game’ that crossed over partisan divides and thwarted attempts by big business to dictate the future of the sport.