THE Hibernian drama has at least one new player. An Edinburgh businessman is believed to be interested in taking over the club.
His entrance has been quiet, even unobtrusive in contrast to the intervention of fans at a meeting at Easter Road on Tuesday night. The consultation process by Leeann Dempster, chief executive, was interrupted when fans demanded the resignation of Rod Petrie, the non-executive chairman.
Petrie, with 10% of the club, and Sir Tom Farmer, with 90%, are now at the centre of a turbulence over ownership. Frankly, given recent history, they would be surprised to be in a period of calm. The downturn in Hibs on the field has been matched by discontent off it. It has been a central theme for most of the 24 years Farmer has been in control.
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In the febrile language of football politics, there is an increasingly loud demand for "regime change". There are three possibilities in play to bring this about. The most vocal group is the Forever Hibernian. Its spokesman, former Hibs player Paul Kane, was frank about the state of the club, describing it as "on its knees". Supporters have set up a fans survey, backed by Supporters Direct Scotland, calling for radical change with the ultimate aim of a supporters' trust running the club.
The survey, www.scottishfans.org/hibs, will run online until September 14. It was set up after a meeting with the Hibs Supporters' Association, the Hibernian Shareholders' Association and other affiliated groups and Supporters Direct Scotland.
Kane described the move as happening at a "pivotal moment" in the club's history. He pointed out that a bid to achieve 51% for the fans over the summer had "hit a brick wall". He called for a concerted push towards community ownership. "Sir Tom Farmer has always claimed he saved the club for the community. We are now offering him the chance to live up to these words," he said.
Two other moves may also be in play. David Low, the financial advisor, leads a consortium that has had a £3.5m bid rebuffed but he confirmed last night that there may yet be another move. This is contingent on two factors: first, Low insists that the group, thought to include former Hibs chairman Malcolm McPherson, does not want to "reward underachievement" by paying a premium to Farmer and Petrie. Second, the group wants the support of fans in any bid, insisting that it would not consider any move that did not have "unambiguous" backing from supporters.
The identity of the third player could not be confirmed last night but Herald Sport understands that the Edinburgh businessman is prepared to make an offer that includes a premium for both Petrie and Farmer, now 74, who is thought to be prepared to relinquish control of the club under the right circumstances. Petrie, who appointed Dempster in a summer that witnessed both relegation and the sacking of manager Terry Butcher, remains determined, however, not to hand over the reins to bids he feels are unworthy.
He has also batted away suggestions that Low's bid failed because he and Farmer would not profit from it. Rejecting the proposal last month, a Hibs board statement said: "Potential benefit to the club was put ahead of any personal consideration. The advice given to the club was that the proposals set out in heads of terms dated 10 July received from Mr Low's lawyers, and again set out at a subsequent meeting held between Mr Low and the independent adviser, were not in the best interests of the club."
The pressure, though, is building on the board. The supporters' initiative will take time both to organise and to reach any definitive aims. It has, though, a significant merit. Hibs will announce financial figures that include debt to banks. This has been estimated at anything up to £6m. Recent history suggests that banks are prepared to "take a bath" on such debt if it is part of a takeover by supporters. In the short-term, the focus is more likely to be on a more conventional takeover bid.
The success of such a move depends on the willingness of Farmer and Petrie to cash in their chips and at what price. The non-executive chairman has gained a reputation as the most astute negotiator in transfer deals. "He has one way of making a deal," a football executive once said. "He names his price and tells you if you do not match it, he is leaving."
Those who wish to impose "regime change" at Easter Road may do well to reflect on these words. Petrie may be under siege but his power base is far from a state of collapse and he still has the will to dictate the terms that could bring peace to a beleaguered club.