The much-anticipated fireworks failed to materialise as Hibs’ annual meeting turned out to be something of a damp squib for those expecting the sparks to fly.
Yes, it got a bit feisty as the share issue plan to widen ownership of the Easter Road outfit – it goes live on Monday – was discussed, but proceedings didn’t descend into the shouting match everyone had predicted beforehand. The small but vocal groups opposed to the move made their point as shareholders arrived at the Famous Five Stand to be greeted by a billboard trailer declaring “It’s not community ownership, it’s a shakedown” and “It’s not an investment, it’s a donation to a multi-millionaire.”
Green and white balloons, too, were handed out, carrying the message “Hibs fans don’t be a balloon. Burst the HSL Ponzi Scheme.”
Both, of course, referred to Hibernian Supporters Limited (HSL), the vehicle put in place through which fans can subscribe with all money raised, along with that invested by those buying shares in their own name, going direct to the football club, a sum which could rise to £2.5 million.
Not so, has been the claim of the dissidents who insisted supporters would, instead, be lining the pockets of both owner Sir Tom Farmer and chairman Rod Petrie, the two biggest shareholders, who, they said, would be the beneficiaries of the £5m debt to be repaid to Hibs’ holding company over the next decade.
Sadly, though, the most contentious part of the evening, the debate on the share issue, was a private affair, the press excluded, we were told, to comply with the niceties of financial regulations and left to rely on second-hand accounts of what took place.
It had, of course, been pre-ordained that the move to double the number of shares in circulation to some 125m would go ahead regardless, the holding company having more than enough clout – some 98 per cent – to ensure it would.
Nevertheless there was one call for a delay to the process to allow it to be discussed more fully but an overwhelming number of the larger than usual gathering – additional seats had to be brought into the Forthview Suite to accommodate the numbers – were happy to stick to the proposed schedule.
Again, they were assured, HSL, a company limited by guarantee, has signed a contracted subscription agreement with the football club. So, when it receives money and hits a trigger point it will buy the shares the club is obliged to sell them. It is an arrangement which will remain open as long as there are shares to be bought.
As matters became rather more heated than earlier when shareholders took care of the formal proceedings of the agm – all 18 minutes of it – and listened to presentations from new chief executive Leeann Dempster, George Craig (head of football operations) and head coach Alan Stubbs, Sir Tom himself took to the microphone.
His address, in which he hit out at the “hurtful lies” accusing him of having taken money out of the club, was said to have been “full of emotion and passion” and greeted with a standing ovation as he shook hands with Dempster, Craig and Stubbs, describing them as “a breath of fresh air.”
At the end of it all there were claims from some participants that the debate had been cut short but Petrie insisted: “I asked the room whether they wanted to stay and debate longer or if they were happy with what they had heard – the clear majority shouted down the one person that was asking for another half-an-hour.”
Earlier Petrie had talked of his regret at the “images of hatred” which had been broadcast around the world from Easter Road following last season’s relegation after which angry demonstrations took place outside the ground, describing them as the “antithesis of what this football club stands for.”
In his opening address he again apologised for what had happened, saying: “Every director shares the pain and hurt. There was an opportunity in the top division and we not only failed to capitalise but were relegated. But it’s what we do in adversity that defines us more as people.”
There was, Petrie insisted, a wind of change blowing through the club and, while the team had enjoyed an indifferent start to the season – which was always to be expected, Hibs were now, Petrie claimed, showing they are a “quality Premiership club albeit in the wrong division.”
At her first agm as Hibs chief executive, Dempster described her first seven or eight months in the post as having been “challenging and stressful” at times but also enjoyable as she insisted the time had come when everyone had to look ahead rather than continue to dwell on the past. She added: “We are confident we will finish the season much stronger than we started it,” before revealing her plans to ensure Hibs do become the community club Sir Tom had envisaged, saying: “I feel very deeply that in order to move the club forward we need to play a bigger part in the community.
“I’m not talking about tickets for schools, although that has been a big success, but how we act within this community. Football has a unique power to influence people, to motivate and inspire, to change lives forever.”
After Craig had given an in-depth presentation of the great changes which have been made behind the scenes, in terms of sports science and fitness, player identification and recruitment, changes within the academy, closer links with local clubs and both Queen Margaret and Edinburgh Universities, Stubbs took to the stage to reveal how he has again “raised the bar” given the strides he strongly believes his team have taken in recent months.
“When I walked in we had 11 players under contract and some of them had been told they could go. Sixteen had gone and of the 11 left Michael Nelson, Owain Tudur Jones and Ryan McGivern left.
“But I looked at what was on offer as a blank canvass, a chance to put my style into what I wanted to do at football club and everyone has allowed me to do that. All the players that have come in have been my decision and that will never change.
“When I came in we only had five weeks to prepare a team for the first game against Rangers, it was always going to be difficult. We had to say we were ready, but we weren’t. The players weren’t ready, they weren’t fit enough. I make no bones about it: the players should not have been in the condition they were so it was going to take time.
“In the last three or four months there has been a real sense of progress not just on the pitch but off it. It’s no coincidence that since September results have started to pick up, the boys are much fitter and I feel we are potentially the fittest team in the league and definitely getting towards being the strongest. Now we are two points behind Rangers but it’s time to raise the bar. We want to get into second, we want to try to put pressure on the team that’s top at the moment.”