Sue McLernon reflects on 40 years spent with Hibs as club legend begins new chapter

The Hanlon Stevenson Foundation held a gala dinner last Sunday where the guest of honour was a returning club legend Franck Sauzee.

In a packed-out O2 Academy, naturally the Frenchman’s appearance received the largest applause of the night. But in an evening attended by the majority of the current squad and heroes of the past, the second largest ovation was reserved for a club legend of an altogether different kind.

Sue McLernon, the former club employee of over 40 years, wasn’t in attendance. She’d only just left Hibs a couple of days before after four decades of working in a variety of roles and wanted to maintain a low profile. But everyone there knew her story and were delighted to hear she’d landed on her feet with a job at the charity following a surprise departure from Easter Road. A wave of tributes met the news of her impending exit last month, including from ex-favourites such as John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch, while there was an acute unease among the fanbase that such a devoted individual had been abruptly let go by the current custodians.

“Seeing the tributes, I was in bits. I was in absolute bits. I couldn't even read the comments everyone posted or sent because I was so upset,” McLernon told this author in a thoroughly engaging 40-minute interview which could’ve lasted several hours. “It was really, really humbling. Whenever I think about it, as you can probably tell, I still get quite emotional.

Sue McLernon with the Scottish Cup after finally seeing her team win the famous trophy. Picture: Contributed

“It was surreal for me, because I was just doing my job. I'm very appreciative of every fan who took time out just to write a wee message. They've no idea how much that actually means to me and my family.

“It's never been about me. It's been about ensuring the club is always painted in the best possible light within the community and within the fanbase. My job was to ensure that everybody who came to Easter Road or HTC had a good day out. I've been lucky enough to have met so many phenomenal and inspiring families throughout that journey. And I hope that I have contributed to their enjoyment of being a Hibs supporter and a fan of the club.

Football is the fairy dust. Football is a carrot to get kids involved. You can engage with kids who don't engage with anything but they love football and you can do that through football.

“The last few months I've been working with a group of kids at a school in East Lothian who've been really struggling with their education. We've been going in and working with small groups and putting a wee Hibs flavour on it. You should see the responses we're getting. It works and it always works. If we can even help one kid to stay within the educational system instead of dropping out then it's worth it. But I think we've helped a lot more.

Sue McLernon with Lewis Stevenson and the Scottish Cup trophy. Picture: Contributed

“When you see a kid's face light up, that made my job worthwhile. It's as simple as that. See when I see them all having fun, that's enough for me.”

McLernon’s selflessness and big heart make her a beloved figure among her fellow supporters. Anyone involved in Hibs Kids growing up will know how kind and devoted she was, how she moved heaven and earth to make sure children always had a smile on their faces. The same went for mascots, those who received visits in schools or as part of community projects, and those suffering through serious illness.

And yet, it all could have turned out so differently for the football fanatic at an early age.

“My family are pretty much all Hearts fans. My mum's family and my dad's family were all Jambos, except from my mum, who was a Hibs fan,” she revealed.

Sue McLernon, second right, alongside John McGinn as part of the Persevered Tour. Picture: Contributed

“Living in Leith, my mum and dad split up, which was quite unusual for the time, but the street I lived in was like a big family and they were all Hibs fans. They all went to the games on the Saturday. I was a tomboy and loved football and would play with the boys on Leith Links. I used to skin them all, it was embarrassing!

“Basically, they were all going to the game one day and I could either go with them or be left playing with Barbies with the girls, which wasn't my scene. So I went with the boys to the game and that was it.”

McLernon started life at Hibs working in the club shop as a volunteer before begrudgingly accepting a wage. From there she moved into selling season tickets, then into helping with Hibs Kids and then into community projects.

All while this was happening her team continued to underachieve on the park. The long wait for a Scottish Cup final victory approached and then past the 100-year mark, while there was also the ignominy of being beaten 5-1 by rivals Hearts in an all-Edinburgh Hampden showdown and the 2014 relegation from the top flight.

After the play-off semi-final defeat to Falkirk eight days before the 2016 final she felt she’d had enough. The hurt was too much to take after the last-gasp loss and she couldn’t bare the thought of similar emotional anguish at Hampden the following weekend. As we all now know, David Gray’s injury-time winner ended the 114-year wait and, thankfully, McLernon was right in there among the rest of the joyous Hibees.

“Honestly, the cup final was the best day of my life. I know I maybe shouldn't say that because I've had three kids but that was, without doubt, the best day in my life,” she said. “I couldn't actually breathe when that goal went in. 'Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,' that's all I could say.

“I was behind the goals. As a member of staff I had the opportunity to go to the main stand, but I didn't want to do it. So me and my family got in my car and we were all sat behind the goal because that's where the best atmosphere is. I drove home with tears streaming down my face. I couldn't believe it.

“I got home about 11 o'clock and watched the highlights. It was just after we'd scored the winner, and I dunno if you can get this on YouTube, but the camera goes to this guy in the crowd. He had his shirt off and he was crying into his shirt. I knew him because his wee boy had died in the January. That was me. I was off again. I thought 'oh my god, that was for Leon’. I did some stuff for the family when they found out it was terminal. If you look on my Facebook page, there's a photo at the Sick Kids with the team and Leon before they won the cup. And that was his dad at the final. It meant everything to me because I could see how much it meant to James. I knew it was his wee boy's strip with his name and No.16 on the back of it. Very few people would know that, but I knew.

“My mum and I had spoke about Hibs winning the Scottish Cup for years and years. She said the best thing ever would be to see Hibs coming down Leith Walk with the trophy. So that's where I was on the day of the parade, right down the end of Leith Walk. I know my mum was with me.

“I didn't really have anything to drink because I didn't feel like I needed it. The euphoria itself was enough for me. I mean, plenty of people did. My son went out celebrating and I didn't see him for days. I was just buzzing watching the highlights again trying to make it sink in that it actually happened. I'm still celebrating because nobody can take it away from me.

“The Persevered Tour [where Hibs brought the trophy to fans across Edinburgh and beyond] was phenomenal. More so because it was a tour I never thought I'd be able to do. At the time I was asked how many schools did I think we could visit. I said 'how about 114?' They said, ‘well why don't we aim for 114 events?’ But I wanted to do that many schools. So we compromised by aiming for 114 events and then go from there. But I'll tell you what, I got my 114 schools.

“I was just so honoured to be asked to deliver that. It was a great experience. They were my best moments at Hibs.”

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