Hibs SOS: Ger Freedman Roundup

‘Supporting Our Supporters,’ a monthly mental health drop-in, is one of the diverse outreach programmes run by Hibs Community Foundation. Organised by fans who’ve completed the 12-week ‘The Changing Room’ sessions run by SAMH at Easter Road, SOS regularly invite guest speakers. October’s meeting welcomed Ger Freedman, the Chairman of Leith Athletic, who also played a prominent role in the ‘Hands Off Hibs’ campaign of 1990.

The 1989-90 season had been average for Hibs, Alex Miller’s men thumping Hungarians Videoton 4-0 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup 1st Round before losing out to a solitary FC Liege goal in the following round, finally finishing mid-table in the Premier League. But nothing could have prepared Ger for the headline on a newsagent’s board on Monday morning, 4th June 1990. ‘WHO KILLED HIBS?’


Younger Hibees might not appreciate just how close Hibernian FC came to extinction at that time. The complicated back story might be summed up in three words. ‘Disastrous financial investments.’ In 1987, Hibs majority shareholder, business tycoon, David Rowland had given a loan to Hibs director, David Duff, to buy the club from previous owner, Kenny Waugh. In 1988, Hibs had become the first Scottish club to be floated on the stock market. Supporters bought into the plan, raising £1.6million. Rowland was given shares worth 29.9% in reward for his ‘expertise’. It would later emerge firms linked to Rowland had then made significant investments in a nightclub, country club, and chain of pubs in England, all of which were revealed to be in receivership at the time of their purchase, totalling more than £6m.


Along with fellow board members, Jim Gray and Alan Munro, Duff was summoned by Rowland to a meeting at the London Hilton to be introduced to the mystery investor who’d agreed to buy out Rowland’s stake and solve Hibs’ financial woes. The Hibs directors were gobsmacked when the door opened and in walked Wallace Mercer, Heart of Midlothian’s owner, and his Rangers counterpart, David Murray. Mercer outlined his audacious plans. He would merge Hibs with his own club. ‘Edinburgh United’ could locate to a brand-new stadium on green-belt land at Straiton purchased by Mercer and Murray. Mercer already owned 60% of Hibs shares, and for his vision to become a reality he only needed to become the majority shareholder by reaching a figure of 76%.


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Lifelong supporter, Kenny McLean moved quickly, initiating the ‘Hands Off Hibs’ campaign dedicated to raising public awareness – and funds – to combat Mercer’s plot (which amounted to liquidating the 115-year-old club). Duff refused to sell his shares to the Hearts owner, as did, remarkably, Sheila, David Rowland’s ex-wife, who became an ‘unsung hero’ for siding with Hibs. Despite hitting a ceiling 14% short of the majority share threshold, Mercer was still claiming Hibs were on the verge of bankruptcy whatever happened. But his scheme was unravelling. At a meeting, Hearts director, Pilmar Smith, let it slip that the amalgamated club would retain the name, Heart of Midlothian. Like most Hibs fans, McLean had never been hoodwinked; he’d always known Mercer’s ‘merger’ was a smokescreen for a hostile takeover.


But Glasgow-born Mercer, a self-described ‘controlled egomaniac,’ had seriously underestimated the depth of feeling within the Hibs community. This defiance was amplified at a rally at Easter Road on Saturday 9th June, where Pat Stanton denounced the plans to sink the club he’d made almost 400 appearances for, former star striker, Joe Baker kissed the hallowed turf, and The Proclaimers performed before the packed audience of Hibees (as well as supporters of Hearts and many other Scottish clubs). At a fundraiser at the Usher Hall, Hearts’ John Robertson, despite being warned by Mercer not to attend, earned respect from his rivals for speaking out against the takeover. McLean got in touch with Tom Farmer, the entrepreneur who built Kwik-Fit. Although not interested in football, Farmer, a Leither from Kirk Street, listened to McLean’s passionate defence of the historic club, instigated as a charity over a century before. Farmer was persuaded to buy shares.


For Mercer, not only had the financial argument slipped from his grasp, the outpouring of hostility was taking a personal toll. Five days later, claiming to have felt threatened, he jetted off to his luxury retreat in the French Riviera, his plot abandoned. On the night of July 14th, the Hibs faithful gathered outside the stadium to celebrate. Ger reckoned he spent about two days in the Hibs Club celebrating with the McLean family, Pat Stanton, Jimmy O’Rourke, and various other Hibs legends! On the eve of the 1990-91 season’s opening game, ‘Ger and Carol Freedman’s Hands Off Hibs celebration night’ took place at the Park View Hotel opposite Leith Links. Around four hundred revellers, including Kenny McLean and all the players involved in ‘Hands Off Hibs’ crammed into the hotel’s function room. Ger’s final comment on these events: “There should have been a statue of Kenny McLean erected outside the stadium.”


Ger went on to highlight his passion for the port’s ‘other team,’ Leith Athletic. Considered a continuation of the original Leith Athletic, founded in 1887, who played in the Scottish League before folding in 1955, Ger was inspired to revive ‘The Leithers’ at junior level. He talked of his despair at seeing youths hanging around outside his local Leith chippie because there was nothing else for them to do. As well as finding pitches and changing rooms, Ger spoke of his pride in his son, Steven playing in the club’s first Scottish Cup win at under-12 level, beating Rangers 2-1 at Hampden in 2001. He stressed the importance of grassroots football for nurturing up-and-coming players. Darren McGregor, Leigh Griffiths, and Danny Swanson all wore Athletic’s black and white stripes before the iconic green and white, while Darren has since been appointed the first Club Ambassador. Despite relying on self-funding, Ger has ensured Leith Athletic can continue to offer opportunities for Leith youngsters. Chiming with the Hibs Community Foundation’s ethos, Athletic are active in the local community, and in 2023, Leith Athletic Giants were launched, dedicated to improving mental and physical health.


Ger contemplated the lows and highs that come with supporting Hibs. He recalled being on the Hampden terraces during the 6-1 defeat to all-conquering Celtic in the 1972 Scottish Cup final (avenged the following December with a 2-1 victory in the League Cup final, with goals by his childhood heroes, Pat Stanton and Jimmy O’Rourke). He contrasted the agony of Mercer’s attempted takeover with winning the League Cup again the following season, overcoming Rangers in the semi, then defeating Dunfermline 2-0 in the final with goals by Tommy McIntyre and Keith Wright. Coming so soon after the worst weeks in Hibs’ history, the outpouring of joy – and relief – after that 1991 cup win almost eclipsed the events at Hampden on a certain day in May 2016 (when he’d proudly swapped his customary choice of tops – Hibs shirts bearing either ‘Stanton’ or ‘Baker’ across the shoulder blades – for his Hands Off Hibs T-shirt!)


Ger spoke fondly of his family upbringing, coming from a line of diehard Southside Hibees. He was born the same day in 1958 Hibs knocked Hearts out the Scottish Cup, Joe Baker bagging all four goals in the 4-3 victory. In later years, Ger played golf with Joe – and Ger eventually got his match programme from that day signed. He concluded his talk by reaffirming his love for Hibs and Leith Athletic, and the Leith community in general, underlining his admiration for what Hibs Community Foundation, and SAMH’s The Changing Room and its Hibs-oriented offshoot, Supporting Our Supporters, are achieving.

Words: Mark Fleming