Hibs director Stephen Dunn admits there was a time when he’d become disillusioned with the Easter Road club, feeling it had committed the “cardinal sin” of losing touch with its supporters.
But now, back on the board for a second spell, Dunn believes the Edinburgh outfit is heading in the right direction both on and off the pitch having recognised its own failings and accepted changes had to be made.
Dunn himself is at the forefront of that project, also a director of Hibernian Supporters Limited, the vehicle set up to enable fans to buy shares – the ultimate goal being for them to own 51 per cent of their club and in so doing putting £2.5 million directly into head coach Alan Stubbs’ budget.
That process is well underway with HSL, launched only six months ago, already holding a five per cent stake in the club with £150,000 of new money raised, a figure which should rise to £250,000 in a first full year from a membership nearing 1000.
“I think that is pretty good going,” declared Dunn, “But am I perfectly happy? No. We think 2000 or 3000 members is something that’s achievable, if not more. My direct appeal to supporters is that it’s a very efficient way of getting money to the management team. We raise money, the club gives us the shares – they aren’t being bought from existing shareholders – and the money goes to support the team.”
Dunn pointed out how HSL encountered what he calls “some headwinds” when it launched – although a supporter-led buy out had been in discussion before then – with some naturally suspicious. Comparisons with what the Foundation of Hearts has achieved were also inevitable.
But he said: “If you look over the other side of the city, we did not have the catastrophic event they had. It was the last chance for Hearts to survive. Ann Budge has come in and what she has done she should be very proud of in the same way Sir Tom Farmer is very proud of the fact he kept Hibs going for the community.
“There is, however, a big difference to what is happening at Hearts. At the moment, FoH are funding entirely the working capital, they are not owning it yet. They do not have a share as yet although I am sure at the appropriate point in time that will change. But six months ago we had no say, now we have a five per cent say in how our club is run.”
Dunn admits keeping HSL at the forefront of fans’ minds was an ongoing challenge but he believes they are also recognising the wind of change blowing through the club. He said: “There was a big outcry from fans about the ambitiion of the club and I think we have tried to show that. We signed our first player within a few days of the end of last season and re-signed players rather than in the latter stages of August.
“That gave us a spike in terms of new members and there was another when Alan Stubbs and his management team re-signed because people began to believe what you are saying. People want to see the whites of your eyes. You are judged by your actions.” Previously corporate services director at ScottishPower and then human resources and communications director at the Miller Group, Dunn believes there’s a freshness and determination to learn from the mistakes of the past among those now guiding Hibs, his own misgivings about how the club was being run eased by a meeting with new chief executive Leeann Dempster.
He said: “I’d had seven or eight years as a non-executive director, bookended by Alex McLeish and Tony Mowbray as manager, and I probably felt that was, in terms of good corportate governance you see elsewhere, long enough to be a non-exec otherwise you almost become institutionalised when part of the role is to be independent.
“I left, but I’ve never really been away, going to matches home and away and trying to help in any way I could. But when I stand back and look at it, the club had lost its way. It actually had become too corporate and kind of lost touch with the fans. As an ordinary punter out there, I was disillusioned with where the club was going.
“You don’t have events at the back of the stand if everything is rosy. There may be reasons I don’t know about, but losing touch with your fanbase is a cardinal sin.
“I think the club woke up to that and were brave in appointing Leeann – brave that they recognised things were going wrong and it needed to change.
“Clearly someone said to Leeann I would be a good person to speak to. She rang me up and what was originally going to be a half-hour chat lasted between two and three hours and she laid our her plans for the club going forward.”
As much as Dunn is determined to help drive HSL forward, he also knows the part ordinary fans can play in the club’s well-being by supporting it in every way they can and, in particular, buying the season tickets which provide that vital working capital.
He said: “Today, we’ve sold more than 7500, we’re tracking ahead of last year, but there’s still 1000 from that time who have not renewed and the difference that could make to the football the club plays is tremendous. We’ve had 11,500 season ticket holders before, average gates of 13,000 and there’s no reason why we can’t have that with the proper product.
“Of course, there are good reasons why some can’t come back and we won’t be irresponsible in trying to get money when people can’t afford it. But, if there’s anybody out there thinking they’d like to buy a season ticket, we’d really like them to do so and, if they can’t, then come along to as many games as they can. We fans get what we pay for at the end of the day.”
Dunn believes the way in which Hibs are throwing open the doors of their £5 million training complex at East Mains underlines the club’s commitment to re-engage not only with their own supporters but, hopefully, new fans of the future.
He said: “The last strategic thing I was involved in on the board last time was the planning for East Mains and that for me could have been the jewel in the crown for the club, That’s where we could have grown our own players. The disappointing thing for me was that it didn’t really happen, it appeared to become a luxury escape for the first team.
“What we are now seeing is East Mains being used in the right way, to develop young players, to bring the community back into the club and also as a base for the elite players.
“The best way to succeed in my view is to have those facilities but they have to be used correctly and that’s what we are beginning to see.
“I think there’s a wider pool of fans out there who need to brought back into the fold and we need to think about how we do that. Engaging and speaking to them is the best way. There’s always going to be doubting Thomases. That’s fine. That happens in life. But, if we can engage more and more people, get them on board, then it becomes a virtuous circle.”