"When you look back at the structure of things with the football club just part of the plc and all those shadowy figures in the south of France, I suppose we were ripe for a takeover of one kind or another" - Tom O'Malley, Hands Off Hibs
They had dipped since then but under the management of the aforementioned Turnbull, they were one of Scotland's top sides for the best part of the 1970s. Indeed, had the genius that was Jock Stein not been lord of all he surveyed at Celtic, Hibs under Turnbull would surely have won more honours than the sole League Cup success against Stein's men in 1972.
Sadly for the supporters, Hibs were unable to build on Turnbull's hard work and began to stagnate. A relegation, promotion and consolidation in the top flight followed in the 1980s but where their star once shone, others such as Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen, Jim McLean's Dundee United and revived city rivals Hearts under Alex MacDonald had taken it off them and applied a fresher shine of polish.
Neither going up or down - or sideways for that matter - Hibs didn't really seem to be bringing anything to the plate. Then the same two men who were on that plane ride at the beginning of this tale rode into town.
David Duff had watched Hibs from the terraces as a boy and now found himself in the position of owning the club. A bid of £100,000 was accepted by the outgoing owner, Edinburgh bookmaker Kenny Waugh, with another £800,000 spent to finance the buyout, and the keys to Easter Road were his.
Duff brought along his brother-in-law Jim Gray to help run things and the duo were not shy in what they had planned for Hibernian football club.
"There will be a revolution, but it won't happen overnight. It could take five years but I would like to do it in three" - David Duff, August, 1987
Neil Orr was bought from West Ham as was Andy Watson from Hearts. Talented midfield maestro John Collins was secured on an improved extended contract when all and sundry had been expecting him to either move to Celtic or Rangers or try his luck down south.
Andy Goram's £325,000 signing from Oldham was a club record and he quickly showed that aside from Collins, he was that rare breed of a player at Easter Road in the 80s - one that had quality.
What transpired on the pitch seemed to be business as usual. The annual mid-table finish and nothing to trouble the trophy engravers in the cup competitions. However, they did halt Hearts' unbeaten run over them in Edinburgh derbies which had stretched to 17 games since the maroon half of Edinburgh returned to the top flight back in 1983.
In the summer of 1988 Duff and Gray looked to build on this and again splashed the cash. A cheeky bid for Hearts' prolific goalscorer John Robertson was designed more to irritate their old rivals than have any seriousness about it - he left Gorgie for considerably more than the £300,000 they had offered with tongue in cheek. That money though did secure Coventry City's FA Cup winning hero of 1987, Keith Houchen.
However, the major coup was obtaining the services of striker Steve Archibald. The Scotland international had just been released by Barcelona and Liverpool looked set to sign him as cover for Ian Rush and John Aldridge. However, with the carrot of regular first team football, and no doubt the chance to shine as a big fish in a little pond, Archibald chose to return to Scotland.
Duff and Gray would again thwart Liverpool with the purchase of Morton starlet Mark McGraw while QPR's Paul Wright and St Mirren's Brian Hamilton were also snapped up.
The Sunday Post in their pull-out preview for the 1988/89 season had tipped Hearts to once again do better than their Edinburgh rivals by reasoning: "Hearts have cash, Hibs don't". While it was true that the former had loot to spend thanks to the £750,000 they had received from Newcastle United for John Robertson, it appears that somebody at Port Dundas HQ had underestimated Hibs' ability to talk big business at the transfer table.
Or had they?
While football in Edinburgh had seen Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer constantly flag up the profile of his club via the media, the bottom line was that he usually made good on his boasts to keep the club ticking over and look to invest in new players.
It seemed Duff and Gray were merely matching their new adversary word for word and deed for deed but even without the benefit of hindsight, there was something peculiar about what was going on at Easter Road.
Although the duo were the main men in charge as far as the public eye was concerned, behind the scenes there was somebody else pulling the strings.
The £800,000 that was mentioned earlier to complete Duff's buyout of the club was not his. It came via a loan from Monaco-based multi-millionaire David Rowland.
Like another Monegasque resident who would one day become the last owner of Rangers football club, Rowland had form. Indeed, not long after his bid in 2010 to become treasurer of the Conservative Party failed, the Daily Mail reported of his business past in the 1980s:
"His name became linked with one of the worst industrial pollution scandals in America, during the 1980s. Rowland had bought a big lead smelting plant in Idaho where, before his purchase, an accident had led to pollution damage which resulted in local children suffering acute respiratory health problems and many marshland birds being killed. Rowland was accused of 'looting' tens of millions of dollars from the firm which should have been spent on cleaning up the damage and diverting funds into a property deal in New Zealand. His spokesman, however, said the allegations were unsubstantiated and the case never went to court. Meanwhile, when he attempted to move some of the company's assets to Bermuda, which would have put them beyond reach of the U.S. authorities, the U.S. Justice Department intervened and blocked the move after a political outcry" - Daily Mail, August, 2010
It was such a man that David Duff went to in order to fund his dream of owning the team he supported.
What was in it for Rowland? Well here's the rub. In 1988, Hibernian became the first Scottish club to float on the stock market. Supporters bought into the plan and the venture raised £1.6million. Rowland was given shares worth 29.9 per cent as a reward for his 'expertise'.
Still the share flotation had raised a considerable amount of cash and surely it would be invested back into a Hibs side who in season 1988/89 had finished above Hearts and qualified for Europe?
Well the cash was invested but in other ventures that had Hibs fans scratching their heads as to what was going on.
A sum of £1million was spent on acquiring a pub in Exeter, £400,000 went on a Devon sports club and a further share issue was announced in order to generate funds of £4.6million to buy, as described in The Scotsman newspaper in 2010:
"...of Avon Inns, a chain of 15 pubs and restaurants in the West Country which had been recently bought by Rowland's company Inoco plc when in receivership." - The Scotsman newspaper, June, 2010
Duff took this Faustian pact without thinking the consequences through. As with a certain owner of the recent incarnation of Rangers football club today, someone else behind the scenes was effectively calling the shots.
It became noticeable that despite the initial bravado off the pitch and the short-term progress on it (season 1989/90 saw Hibs finish mid-table while Hearts qualified for Europe) Hibs had taken two steps forward only to take four steps back.
Back in 1988, Hibs' debt stood at £882,000. By the summer of 1990, that figure had propelled to £4.5million - despite the so-called success of the stock market flotation. Hence Duff and Gray felt obliged to get on a plane.
The duo were in London because it was said that somebody was willing to invest in the club and alleviate the financial issues that were now facing the club. That somebody was also willing to do it by buying out Rowland's stake. Having got what he wanted from the deal, Rowland was keen to sell and move on to other ventures.
Duff no doubt went to England hoping for a productive chat with this mystery investor and hoped he could get him on board at Hibs with a more equal footing than he had with Rowland and kickstart his planned revolution. He would probably accept this person taking the reins at Easter Road as long as his seat on the board was still secure.
Discussions on the plane between Duff and Gray focussed as to who this new financial saviour was. One name that kept cropping up in the conversation was then-Derby County owner and Daily Mirror magnate, Robert Maxwell which excited the duo greatly.
One can only imagine the look on their faces when they were introduced to the prospective investor.
Wallace Mercer, owner of Heart of Midlothian football club.
Their jaws would drop further when he revealed the true nature behind his interest. A merger between Hearts and Hibs into a unified club playing at a new stadium in order to build a stronger challenge to Rangers and Celtic.
Hibs fans were understandably mortified. Hearts fans were split. The hard-liners welcomed the chance of achieving 'the ultimate victory' of defeating Hibs once and for all. Others took the more sensible approach of that, despite the rivalry, it was that very thing alone that both Jambo and Hibee alike enjoyed. Local derbies and the ups and downs that came with them. The fixture helped to shape both clubs and generated something in Edinburgh that one-club cities like Aberdeen wished they had.
If Glasgow thrived on its derby then the same was true of Edinburgh and there were those in maroon who felt obliged to back their rivals against the wishes of the man who had saved their own team from liquidation nine years previously.
A bombastic Mercer made his intentions public at a press conference at Edinburgh's Caledonian Hotel. As The Herald reported at the time:
"The aim, he said was to merge two principal clubs to create ''one unit that could compete at the highest level with clubs from the West of Scotland or within Europe should the opportunity ever arrive of taking part in a European League''.
"He said that at a time of momentous change in Europe it should not come as such a great shock that two football clubs which had been rivals for more than a century should decide to merge. 'Sadly rationalisation and change is upon us. I appreciate there is going to be a great amount of emotional distress if this succeeds. It is up to others to decide whether there will be emotional distress if this doesn't succeed'.
"A document outlining the immediate effects of the merger was issued at the news conference. It stated: 'If this bid is successful, the intention is that there will be only one club from Edinburgh in the premier division next season. The assets of Edinburgh Hibernian plc are to be sold and debt repaid. The players' contracts will be protected, and a judgment on the remainder of the employees and other matters will be taken if the bid is successful. Easter Road, therefore, will be closed down. During this next season, based on the response from the public, the name, the strip, and other elements will be decided upon for the new team which will play in the 1990-91 season'.
"The Mercer document argues: 'It is our view that a merged club must be the way forward to ensure that we can provide for the current and future generations a team and stadium which truly reflects the stature of the city and the region.The benefits of a new stadium and the eradication of the tribalistic element in Edinburgh football will attract to the Scottish league new corporate customers who have declined to get involved in Edinburgh over the years'.
"Mr Mercer said that he had 'considerable respect' for Mr Rowland and he hoped he would not be vilified as an easy target simply because he lived abroad. ''He is a businessman who had made a business decision,' Mr Mercer said.
"Responding to the tension caused by rigorous questioning, he launched a series of rhetorical questions in return: 'Why are Hibs vulnerable to takeover at this moment? Why was I asked? Why was I financed by a major Scottish bank. Who else has approached me about consultation? Why do I need the aggro and hassle of all this?''' - The Herald, June 1990
This was a deliberate and calculated aggressive takeover of a struggling football club (or 'enterprise' if one adopts the business-speak used by the likes of Mercer and Rowland). For all the talk of this being a 'merger', that term was being used to sanitise the deal.
Hibs were to be wiped off the footballing map. They would join the likes of Third Lanark in the choir invisible. Edinburgh United was just a name used in a pathetic attempt to dress this deal up. The name of Heart of Midlothian would remain. The badge of Heart of Midlothian would remain. The maroon shirts of Heart of Midlothian would remain. This 'superteam' would play at Heart of Midlothian's Tynecastle the following season, not Easter Road.
Worryingly for Hearts fans, regardless of whether or not they were in favour of Mercer's scheme, the bulk of the venture was a leveraged bid. Mercer would front up £750,000 with the Bank of Scotland lending him £13million to cover the cost of Hibs' share capital, debts and liabilities.
Mercer's plan was to sell off Easter Road to developers, then, as part of his friend and then-Rangers owner David Murray's scheme to redevelop to the tune of £200million green-belt land in the west of Edinburgh, build a 25,000 capacity all-seater stadium for Hearts to move into which would also see Tynecastle Park sold off to developers thus giving Mercer the means to pay back the bank and make a tidy profit as well.
This would come back to haunt Hearts and Mercer two years later when the club plunged into the red and forced him to sell the club to Chris Robinson and Leslie Deans in the summer of 1994.
But in 1990, it was Hibs looking at the marked deck of cards that were stacked against them with Duff and Gray with eggs on their faces. They had not known what their so-called pal in business Rowland was doing behind their backs. Rowland had no interest in Hibernian at all and saw Mercer's offer in business terms only. He stood to sell shares to a buyer at a profit. The emotional baggage placed by thousands on a football club did not flicker anything at all within his conscience.
Not surprisingly, a section of Hibs fans reacted aggressively towards Mercer. Threats were made towards him and his family while windows at his home were smashed.
While such actions should never be condoned, it is without doubt that had the Hearts owner not made his takeover attempt, the hostility against him would surely never have occurred. It didn't stop him crassly trying to portray himself as the victim though:
''At home I have to sleep with a special security black box with a red light and aerial at the side of my bed. I suppose this happens to Cabinet Ministers all the time but I am not used to such security" - Wallace Mercer, June 1990
David Duff tried to save face by claiming that the situation was 'in hand' and that this situation was something that could be resolved by the Hibs board:
''We have financial people here at Easter Road and they will be pleased to talk to anyone who makes an approach but I am not looking for a white knight'' - David Duff, June 1990
"I have no desire to own a football club. I am a lad from Leith and I have no desire to see them disappear. But anyone who says Tom Farmer is buying Hibs is totally wrong. I have said that apart from buying it I will give it the support I can. That is all" - Tom Farmer, June 1990
Towards the end of one episode the Edinburgh-born Leslie removed a jumper to reveal a 'Hands Off Hibs' T-shirt. Bizarrely, a spate of phone calls jammed the BBC switchboard complaining about this act feeling that "such lobbying was inappropriate for a children's television programme".
It would seem a lot of Hearts fans had been watching Blue Peter that evening.
There were some of a maroon persuasion who were not as petty, nor were they approving of the attempted social engineering undertaken by the Hearts owner. One such person was the-then SNP MP for the Westminster constituency of Banff and Buchan and Hearts fan, Alex Salmond, who tabled an amendment to a House of Commons motions to praise the Hands Off Hibs group and condemn Wallace Mercer. It read:
"Heart of Midlothian are in the hands of a personality who cares more about property development than footballing tradition. No club, or its chairman, should seek to prosper by conniving in the demise of another. I am sure that all Scotland will cheer if Mr Mercer's scheme falls flat on its face" - Alex Salmond MP, June 1990
"Scottish football has too few big clubs, and the loss of Hibs would hit the finances of all clubs. We feel that this void could never be filled by having only one representative from Scotland's capital. Edinburgh would lose a large number of supporters because Hibs fans would not be prepared to follow any other team in such vast numbers. The SPFA feel that a closer relationship between Hibs and Hearts could be established by discussing the erection of a new purpose built stadium to satisfy the needs and aspirations of both clubs. We therefore offer whole-hearted support to that faction of the Hibernian board who wish to see their club continue" - Tony Higgins, June 1990
Mercer though remained undeterred and kept up the offensive on the beleaguered Hibs board by questioning their competency as football club custodians:
"What's happened to their money? Where's it gone? Hibs had embarked on 'an ill-judged diversification' into public houses, restaurants, and leisure facilities in the south west of England which ultimately cost £7.04million. Unlike Hearts, which concentrates on football-related activities, Hibs is now an unsuccessful leisure group with a football subsidiary" - Wallace Mercer, June 1990
"The home gate for a united Edinburgh club ought to be greater than that of either of the two Glasgow clubs. Both Edinburgh clubs have performed badly on the field and on the terraces in terms of attendance. I suspect if they stay in the present situation Edinburgh supporters will have two very third-rate teams. Will that satisfy the new generation of football supporters?" - Prof Donald Mackay, June 1990
"Football is about winning. Its about flags and trophies. If you put a winning team on the field allegiances would switch. Let us presuppose the offer fails. How are the debts going to be met? What will they do to pay off the bank manager? You not only sell off the pubs, you sell the family silverware. One or two players don't even want to stay" - Wallace Mercer, June 1990
Although Mercer was closing in on the percentage needed for an outright buyout, the fan block of shares had put him in the position of having to try and persuade one of the Hibs board members who had enough shares of their own to sell to him.
That particular member was a certain David Duff who refused to sell his 11 per cent holding and forced Mercer to admit defeat - much to the relief of the Hibs support.
Duff eventually resigned his seat on the board in July 1990 and years later was jailed in England for swindling building societies out of thousands of pounds.
Rowland was eventually ousted leading to Tom Farmer, now playing the role of the reluctant owner, taking the reins of the club. Farmer insisted that he would merely serve as a 'guarantor' for Hibs' long-term survival and would leave the day to day running of the club to other board members.
Hibs meanwhile had to sell prized midfielder John Collins for a seven-figure sum to Celtic in order to try and patch up the mess that summer's shenanigans had left behind. A league reconstruction of extending the top flight from 10 teams to 12 was the only factor that saved them from relegation in season 1990/91 - not to mention three heavy derby defeats to Hearts. Goalkeeper Andy Goram was later sold to Rangers for £1million in order to restore the accounts to a healthier level.
They did however provide a fitting riposte to Mercer's claim that they couldn't exist by themselves when in season 1991/92 they bagged a surprise League Cup trophy win.
Mercer meanwhile was hoisted by his own petard when Hearts fell into the red in 1992 - no doubt the money wasted in the folly that was his takeover bid did not help. As stated earlier, he would sell up in 1994.
But would his takeover dream, had it gone through, have been a success?
As one Hearts fan, who was against the merger, said at the time: "Why doesn't he just use the money to buy Collins and Goram from them instead?"
A glance at the two squads at the time suggested that any improvement would have been minimal had Hibs been submerged by Hearts. Collins and Goram would have added something to the team but not enough to compete with Celtic and certainly not enough to reel in Rangers who were enjoying a hefty line of credit from the bank which would ultimately play a part in their own downfall two decades later.
Not to mention that given Mercer's attempted takeover was a leveraged bid, the millions that the bank would have wanted back for their loan would have been a burden for Hearts. Selling off Easter Road and Tynecastle and moving into a new stadium might have seen this succeed but given that Edinburgh City Council would block future applications from Mercer to build a stadium on green belt land at the Millerhill and Hermiston areas on the outskirts of the capital, the new venture would have been struggling to make the leap needed to catch the Glasgow giants.
As for the fans, the derby fixture would throw up its usual thrills and spills. Hearts fans would have been denied being unbeaten in the fixture for 22 games in a row as well as the 2006 Scottish Cup semi-final where they beat Hibs 4-0 en route to taking the trophy. Lest we forget a certain final which finished 5-1 to the Gorgie side in 2012.
While Hibs fans might not have found the derby fixture a pleasant occasion results-wise over the past two decades, they at least still have a team that can play in them.