Archie MacGregor explains why Edinburgh clubs have little need of trophy cabinets
On the top of a hill in the centre of Scotland’s capital rests a sorry-looking, unfinished 19th Century monument to the dead of the Napoleonic Wars. Intended to be a replica of the Parthenon in Athens, it has for many years now been popularly referred to as ‘Edinburgh’s disgrace’. As a symbol of inflated grandeur, unfulfilled potential and downright farce it has few rivals throughout these isles, yet, oddly enough, two of the closest contenders lie within its immediate environs. They are called Hearts and Hibs.
Let’s not mince words. This pair are big-time underachievers. A few facts and statistics. In the Green corner – Hibs. The last time they won the Scottish Cup, a chappie called the Tsar ruled supreme in Russia, you could place a bet on the Liberals winning the next election and not get carted off in a straightjacket, and nobody had ever heard of Dundee United or Brechin City. Heavens, even Third Lanark occupy a more recent position on the list of winners. The championship last found its way to Easter Road before the Queen had been crowned, and a couple of League Cup victories in 1972 and 1991 represent their only successes in major competitions in over 40 years of trying.
In the Maroon corner – Hearts. The self-proclaimed “third biggest team in Scotland” have won zilch since 1963, during which time a supposed ‘lesser’ club, Aberdeen, have notched up three Championship, five Scottish Cup and four League Cup wins. Several small-town outfits have laid claim to silverware in the same period, while there’s also Dundee United’s redoubt- able endeavours between 1979 and 1994 to remind Hearts how unrelentingly inept they’ve been.
This season’s efforts by both Edinburgh clubs to chase for honours have been in keeping with their by now well-established traditions of fecklessness – Hibs’ ‘championship challenge’ lasted all of three months; Hearts’ barely limped off the starting blocks. Each was knocked out of the League Cup by First Division opposition and Hibs are already out of the ‘Scottish’.
At a time when it only needs a Scottish club to concede an away goal in European competition to bring the “crisis” headlines cascading down, the lack of media comment about the seemingly terminal ‘also-ran’ status of Edinburgh football is remarkable. Yet in a sense this is symptomatic of the malaise. The demise of the city’s third club, Meadowbank Thistle, was precipitated as much by years of shameful indifference by the local press and radio stations as by the draconian manoeuvrings of their reviled chairman, Bill ‘Mr Blobby’ Hunter. Indeed it’s arguable that if Thistle had enjoyed the sort of coverage normally given to a league club within its own town, Blobby would never have attempted, let alone succeeded, in uprooting the club to Livingston.
As it is, in an extraordinary challenge to accepted notions about sport being a worthwhile vehicle for the promotion of civic pride and identity, the Edinburgh Evening News actually made Hunter one of its nominees for its ‘Local Sports Personality of the Year’ award last year. Can you think of any other football city in the UK where someone responsible for closing down one of its clubs would be hailed as some kind of Messianic visionary?
The media cannot, however, be held ultimately responsible for the failings of Hearts and Hibs. Neither, too, can either clubs’ recent, near catastrophic, levels of indebtedness: the recent cup successes of Raith, Motherwell and St Mirren, to name but three, was hardly borne out of those clubs suddenly striking it rich and buying success à la Rangers or Blackburn.
It is nevertheless pertinent to ask why two sides based in a city of almost half a million, undoubtedly amongst Scotland’s wealthiest on a per capita basis, should be perpetually cash-strapped. Again the answer would appear to be indifference – not, it must be pointed out, from ordinary fans of either club. They have gone well beyond the normal thresholds for the onset of compassion fatigue in contributing to various share issues, bond schemes and plain undisguised pleas for help in recent years.
It’s generally accepted, though, that you need a multi-millionare chairman pouring in the cash. But while Hearts and Hibs have had individuals who posed as such, the fact is they’ve never had the genuine article. The Edinburgh establishment and business community has, in large measure, shunned football over the years, for love of the oval ball. After the Border region, the capital is Scottish rugby’s principal stronghold, enthusiastically promoted by private schools where those that have ‘made it’ send their kids. An international at Murrayfield is the winter equivalent of a Royal garden party for Edinburgh’s professional and commercial élite.
As a result, Hearts and Hibs have had to make do with a procession of second rate entrepreneurs whose influence on their well-being has varied from dithering neglect to downright malignancy. The most famous of these was, of course, Wallace Mercer at Hearts. Yet he went in 1994 as he came in 1981: on a billowing cloud of hot air and with the club deep in debt and trophy-less. Over at Easter Road, meanwhile, there was the deadly duo of David Duff and Jim Gray, whose activities in the late ’80s took Hibs to the brink of extinction – at the hands of firstly the mischievous Mercer with his predatory ‘merger’ proposal, and subsequently the banks.
Nowadays, while there may be stability in the Tynecastle and Easter Road boardrooms, one would be hard put to identify anything resembling dynamism. Lack of genuine belief in the cause also seems to manifest itself on the field. Twice, in 1965 and 1986, Hearts have blown a league title on the last day of the season. Five cup semi-final defeats in the last nine seasons also point to a side with a tendency to run for the toilets when the day of reckoning comes along.
The same trait was identifiable in Hibs early ’70s side. Acknowledged as one of the most entertaining teams in Scotland at the time, their challenge to Celtic’s league stranglehold invariably collapsed in the latter half of the season. Cup final defeats at the hands of Jock Stein’s charges by margins of 6-1 and 6-3 in ’72 and ’74 pretty much sum up the spineless nature of the side.
Such repeated failings may also spring in part from the character of the city. Glaswegians are often held up for being “gallus” – i.e. having a defiant, swaggering, self-confidence – and certainly there is more than a trace of that about the Old Firm, home or away. The more diffident outlook of the Edinburgh citizen, on the other hand, hardly engenders a cocky belief in destiny, whether on the football field or elsewhere.
Foundationless caricatures? Well, consider the comparative success of the two cities’ attempts at civic promotion in the 1980s. Everyone’s heard of the “Miles Better” campaign, but who can recall Edinburgh’s feeble response – “Count Me In”? Of course, we are to be wholly grateful that neither Hearts nor Hibs followed their Glaswegian counterparts’ brutal exploitation of historical background to build and sustain their support over the years. Finding an alternative driving sense of purpose has proved difficult, however.
With the Rangers monopoly seemingly mutating into an Old Firm duopoly once again, few would foresee the arrival of trophy-bearing open-topped buses along Princes Street in the immediate future. True, Hearts made a shrewd move in appointing Jim Jeffries – one of the best managerial talents in Scotland and a Tynecastle man through and through – as boss. But the gap in resources available to him compared to Tommy Burns and Walter Smith remains in multiple digits.
Maybe they should get around to finishing that folly on top of the Cotton Hill. The monumental impotence demonstrated by Edinburgh’s football double act over the last thirty years or so surely deserves some kind of recognition.
From WSC 109 March 1996. What was happening this month