100 Owners: Number 82 – Wallace Mercer (Heart of Midlothian )
The problem of what to do about Rangers and Celtics domination of Scottish football is a seemingly intractable problem which has troubled many minds over the years. There have been oases of openness over the years, perhaps most notably in the early to mid 1980s when both Dundee United and Aberdeen enjoyed both domestic and European success, but ultimately the pendulum of success has always returned to Glasgow. In football, size matters, and Rangers and Celtic are the biggest of the lot. Such a schism is, perhaps, more keenly felt in Edinburgh than anywhere else.
The capital city but not the biggest city, Edinburghs two clubs, Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian, have existed in the shadow of the Glasgow giants since the nineteenth century, unable to permanently break their grip on the overwhelming majority of Scottish footballs silverware, but in the summer of 1990 one man did try to break that grip by the most extreme means possible.
Wallace Mercer took over the running of Heart of Midlothian on the 25th May 1981, at thirty-four years of age. A self-confessed ‘controlled egomaniac’ (an observation that the he would later come to regret), he had made his fortune in property development, he had moved to London at the age of twenty-five to run a property firm before moving back to Edinburgh with his own company, Pentland Securities, having studied accountancy, law and economics in his spare time. For someone who enjoyed the spotlight that came with his sporting acquisition, Hearts were prudently run. Mercer, for all of the ostentation of his personality, was moderately wealthy – he was already a millionaire by the time he took over at Tynecastle – and he clearly knew the value of a pound.
A reputation that ended up soured – and more on that shortly – could have been very different. Under the management of Alex McDonald, Hearts’ fortunes improved on the pitch and in 1986 they almost caused one of the biggest surprises in the last three decades of Scottish football when they went the wire with Celtic for the SPL title. They benefited when Scotland reached a protracted two-legged play-off against Australia for a place in the 1986 World Cup finals. As other clubs, with large numbers of players called up, found themselves with fixture backlogs that would cause headaches throughout the first few months of 1986, Hearts eased their way to the top of the table, and from December 1985 on they went on a twenty-seven long unbeaten run which took them to almost the end of the season.
Almost, but not quite. On the final day of the season, Hearts travelled to Dens Park to play Dundee, needing only to avoid defeat in order to be crowned as the champions of Scotland for the first time since 1960. If they lost and Celtic win their home match against St Mirren by enough, though, they could still be pipped to the post. During the build-up to the match several players were affected by a virus, but Hearts supporters were not to know this and on the 3rd May 1986 thousands turned up at Dens Park hoping for the best. As the afternoon went on, though, things started to go wrong. At Celtic Park, St Mirren were capitulating – Celtic led by four goals to nil at half-time, which had destroyed Hearts’ goal difference insurance policy – and an air of celebration soon turned to nerves. If they held on for a draw, though, they would still win the title. But with seven minutes to pay, the Dundee substitute Albert Kidd bundled the ball into the Hearts goal from four yards out for the home side, and a couple of minutes later added a second to hand the title to Celtic. A week later, Celtic beat an exhausted and demoralised Hearts team to win the Scottish Cup as well.
There was one final, bitter irony for Hearts. Twenty-one years earlier, Hearts had been pipped to the Scottish championship on the last day of the season by Kilmarnock on goal average. That summer, the club lobbied for goal average to be replaced by goal difference to separate teams that finished league seasons level on points, and their proposal was adopted. Had goal average still been in use at the end of the 1985/86 season… Hearts would have won the title. The club has finished as runners-up three times since that season – in 1988,1992 and 2006 – but it remains as it was at full-time on that fateful day in May 1986. Hearts have still not been the champions of Scotland since 1960.
Perhaps it was the bitter experiences of May 1986 that led Mercer to make the decision that would deface his reputation for good. City rivals Hibernian had been mismanaged for some time and by the summer of 1989 they were in a desperate financial position. It was at this point that Mercer made his move. His intention was to buy Hibernian FC, merge it with Hearts and form an Edinburgh “super club” to challenge Rangers and Celtic. By July 1990 Mercer had managed to acquire in the region of 60% of Hibernian shares, but furious Hibernian supporters, who regarded this merger as little more than a take-over by another name, were determined not to let it go unchallenged, and the Hands Off Hibs group swiftly formed to counter the take-over bid. This group was noisy, and more importantly, high profile. Rallies were held at Easter Road and protests sprung up across the city of Edinburgh. If Mercer was going to get control of both clubs and merge them, he was going to have a fight on his hands.
He didn’t help himself by not clearly stating what the new club would look like. No name was given (“Edinburgh United” was, somewhat predictably, the name that the concept was provisionally given), no colours were identified and with out this the belief that any new club would be Hearts by any other name – or perhaps not even that – was valid grounds. In addition to this, buying Hibernian would be expensive. The total cost to Mercer was quoted as being in the region of £13m-14m, just a year after Michael Knighton had almost bought Manchester United for £20m, and this presented him with a logistical problem. On top of this, the remaining Hibernian shareholders were placed under enormous pressure to keep hold of their shares, and it was this that ended up being one of the deciding factors against the sale. At the start of July 1990, the by now embattled Hibernian chairman David Duff told a rally of 2,000 Hibernian supporters that the club had the directors of the club had made mistakes and that they would “start again and do it properly this time.” It was he that had converted the company into a Public Limited venture, which, whilst this gave supporters an opportunity to invest in the club also left it vulnerable to Mercers overtures.
Ultimately, though, the man that saved Hibernian was Sir Tom Farmer. A businessman who had founded the Kwik-Fit tyre replacement chain (its sale to Ford in 1999 was for more than £1bn, making him one of Scotlands richest men), Farmer had no great interest in football, but he did believe passionately that Hibernian had a valuable place in the Edinburgh community and he was one of the key shareholders who refused to sell to Mercer. Eventually, it was this, along with the groundswell of public opinion against the merger which meant that it didn’t happen, and Mercer would later admit that he had misjudged the strength of opinion on the subject, although some may wonder how, if he had so much as a cursory interest in football in the city, he could possibly have managed to persuade himself of this. He hung on at the club until 1994 before leaving, and died in 2006 at fifty-nine years old. Curiously, a little over two years ago, his family issued a statement which said, “Subsequent events, with Rangers and Celtic tightening their stranglehold on Scottish senior football, have proved this to be right.” Supporters of both Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian might seek to differ in their assessment of that particular viewpoint.
What, though, of Mercers legacy? After all, he dragged Hearts from a desperate position both on and off the pitch and took the club to within seven minutes of becoming the champions of Scotland in a little less than five years. And for all of his bluster, he did at least acknowledge that he made a wrong call on the merger of the two Edinburgh clubs and that he had underestimated the effect that his actions were having. Those effects were shown in the starkest possible terms when, with the deal off, the two clubs met for the first time in the league in September 1990 at Easter Road. Hearts raced into a three-nil half-time lead, but tempers, already worn to the bone by the activities of that summer, were running so high that the referee had to take the players from the field during the first half, with the police visiting the away dressing room to warn of the dangers of greater disturbances should Hearts further extend their lead.
Could Mercer possibly not have been able to see that feelings on this subject would run that high? Did he really believe that supporters of these two clubs would seriously set aside their rivalry for an imagined “greater good” of challenging Rangers and Celtic? It seems impossible to believe that he could have done – after all, he had been at Tynecastle for nine years at that time. The charitable assessment of this story is that he did and that it was, as he stated himself, a misjudgement. The alternative viewpoint to this is, perhaps more tempting – that Mercer, the property developer, the Conservative money man, didn’t care too much about what the supporters of either club thought and believed that any trouble between groups of supporter would eventually blow over. Perhaps Mercer did genuinely believe that this new club would be for the good football in the city in a broader sense than Hearts or Hibernian could ever manage, but it seems unlikely to the point of being incredible to be asked to believe that this was some sort of misguided altruism on all of this. Mercer was a property developer and businessman before anything else, after all. The debt that Hearts supporters have to Mercer for turning around the fortunes of their club cannot be denied, but equally it cannot be denied that his legacy was irreversibly damaged by the fiasco of the summer of 1990. Perhaps, when your three biggest interests are making money, self-publicity and football, it’s an occupational hazard.
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