Ron Gordon: Why owning and running Hibs was a dream comes true for passionate, lifelong fan of football
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His sudden death at the age of 68, following a battle with cancer, came at a time when he was living the dream. Owning and running a professional football club was a life-long ambition for the American businessman who had Scottish roots. He fulfilled exactly that in July 2019 when finalising a deal to become the majority shareholding of Hibs, paying around £6m to take control of the club from Sir Tom Farmer.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Hibs fans in the three and a half years since. A rollercoaster ride for Gordon too, but one that, sadly, he had not finished. His family has committed to carrying forward his vision for Hibs. How they plan to do so is a topic for another day. For now, the Gordons, his wife Kit and sons Colin and Ian, are mourning the loss of a husband and father. Everyone connected with Hibs is mourning the loss of a gentleman who cared deeply about the club and the game.
No-one – even the fans who had recently been calling for him to sell up – could question or doubt Gordon’s intentions for Hibs. His vision for the club was to be in the top four every season, competing for cups and in playing in Europe every year. He once referred to it as the “minimum goal and standard."
In some respects he wanted to move things forward too quickly. Gordon was bold and ambitious. Impatient even. He believed in the potential for growth and was of the opinion that Hibs and the Scottish game were undervalued. He tried to change things, challenging old assumptions.
Off the pitch, Hibs have made big changes and steps forward as a club under his leadership. Gordon fulfilled his promise to invest heavily in the stadium and the training ground. He has improved the matchday experience for supporters, investing in better catering and hospitality. He set ambitious financial targets, aiming to increase turnover and grow the business by boosting season ticket sales, sponsorship and other commercial revenue streams only to be hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. He achieved all of that despite the challenge of replacing outgoing chief executive Leeann Dempster, who departed in November 2020. Ben Kensell came in ten months later.
On the pitch, as is often the way in football, it was not plain sailing during his tenure. There were highs and lows, good and bad. Under Jack Ross early on, things were going very well. Hibs finished third for the first time in 16 years, reached two cup finals and played in Europa. But Ross was sacked after a poor run of form and instability followed, the restructuring of football operations not going according to plan and Shaun Maloney’s appointment proving to be a mistake.
Running a football club is not like running other businesses, but Gordon knew what he was getting into and accepted the challenge of an executive, hands-on role at a club in the Scottish capital from his home just outside Washington DC. “I’m big on planning and creating a vision and then driving towards that,” he once explained. “In business I have always gotten to the goals I set myself, maybe not always in that time frame, maybe a year or two later, but we have always got there. Sports is a bit different, though, because you are not in control of everything and performances can go up and down.”
Gordon was a tycoon in the US media industry and proud of his Scottish heritage. He drew inspiration from the passion of football fans throughout his life. La U were his team in Lima, where he grew up and fell in love with the game. “I was actually a very good little player when I was young, not at the level of these guys, but I did enjoy playing football,” he said in an interview with the Edinburgh Evening News in 2021. “I played at my school and I played in my neighbourhood. I played a lot.
“Most of my friends when I was growing up were football nuts so we played a lot. I would go to the professional games as much as I could. I love the game. There is something about it that is beautiful, both in terms of the creativity and the things you see players come up with, their imagination and skill, and on the other hand, it is a very unpredictable, very unfair and cruel game at times. That is what ignites the passion. It gets you all worked up.
“You see that with supporters all over the world, but football fans are passionate supporters. I think that is what makes the game so unique and special.”
Over the years, Gordon played, coached, and wrote about football. Owning a club was the dream, but moving to the US as a teenager put an obstacle in his path. “I arrived when I was 14, about a week before my 15th birthday and at high school there was no football,” he once recalled. “There were some clubs who played, and I did a bit of that, but when I went to college I tried playing but it was really awful football, really, really bad, so I stopped. But when I came back to Washington I started a football club and we were really, really good.”
Living in the US also provided Gordon with opportunities in life. His first business was a football newspaper – another example of his life-long obsession – that he started in his early 20s. Gordon built his fortune on sound planning, diligence and setting achievable targets. He used the same principles at Hibs.
Buying Hibs was the realisation of a dream. A dream that his two sons, Colin and Ian, never really believed he would fulfil. He once recalled: “They had been making fun of me because I had been talking about buying a football team for a long time and my kids eventually said: ‘Dad stop talking about it because you are never going to do it – we know you won’t’. But it’s like shopping for a home, you have to keep looking and then all of a sudden you walk into one and you think ‘this is it, this is the right one’. That was Hibs.”