A True Celtic Hero
19 years ago on a chilly, damp January day Celtic took on Rangers at Celtic Park in the traditional New Year’s game. A sell-out crowd gathered to watch the game and those rooting for Celtic were hoping for rather than expecting a victory. Years of under-investment coupled with what we now recognise as reckless spending at Ibrox saw Celtic struggle to live with Rangers in those years. The game came during a period of bitter strife within the Celtic family as fed up fans had been organising and demanding change. Celts for Change had spearheaded the fans opposition to the ‘biscuit tin’ Board who seemed to have little idea of how to stop Celtic’s decline. Combining fans anger and frustration with the acumen of some Celtic supporting businessmen seemed the best way to oust the discredited and failed custodians who had allowed Celtic to slip perilously close to insolvency.
In some ways the Rangers game of January 1994 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was played out on a gloomy afternoon in a stadium best described as a working Victorian museum. After 28 minutes of torrid play Celtic found themselves 0-3 down and the mood on the Celtic end terraces was becoming very ugly. I stood near a Celtic fan in his 30s almost crying with rage at what he was watching, ‘You bastards had best get yer taxis booked now!’ he screamed in the general direction of the Director’s box. Any good will towards the people running Celtic at that time was completely erased by the humiliating and depressing drubbing Celtic took in that first 45 minutes. Rangers eased off the gas in the second half and the game finished 4-2 in their favour. In truth Celtic never got near them that miserable day back in 1994. But as we trudged home from that game in the darkness and rain, wheels were already in motion to change Celtic FC forever.
Fergus McCann had failed with a takeover bid the year before but enough shareholders saw the slippery slope Celtic were on and sided with McCann’s consortium in early 1994 to break the log jam. Celtic were miles behind Rangers and over £7m in debt, there seemed an unanswerable case for change. Over a thousand Celtic fans waited outside Celtic Park in the rain in March 1994 while negotiations dragged on for hours inside. Eventually McCann emerged flanked by Brian Dempsey who told the waiting fans the news they longed to hear…’The battle is over, the Rebels have won!’ They may well have saved Celtic from a similar fate to that which befell Rangers in 2012. McCann was now in charge but faced huge challenges including a massive debt, a dilapidated Stadium, disenchanted fans and a failing team. Ousted Director Michael Kelly, dismissed McCann’s plans for Celtic in his book ‘Paradise Lost’ by stating bitterly that there was no demand for a 60,000 capacity Stadium and they would never fill it if it was built. Kelly also assured us that there was no way Celtic fans would support a share issue to raise the huge funds required to rebuild the stadium and the club. How wrong he was! Celtic’s share issue was vastly oversubscribed as Celtic fans shelled out their hard earned cash to resurrect their club. The McCann revolution was underway. Success on the field was patchy but progress off it was undeniable. As Rangers closed in on 9 in a row there was an understandable call to invest heavily in the team. McCann stuck to his budgets and soon showed the door to players who demanded more than their contracts stipulated. He also took on officialdom when he thought Celtic had been wronged. The disgraceful 6 week hold up in registering George Cadette at a vital point in the season led to McCann taking on SFA Chief Executive Jim Farry. Farry lost his job after an inquiry sided with McCann and found the hold-up had been deliberate. This disgraceful behaviour by the SFA fed Celtic fans’ paranoia further. Farry departed with a nice lump sum and signed an agreement to keep silent on the matter.
Fergus McCann brought the business philosophies of North America to Scotland and didn’t suffer fools gladly. Tommy Burns, Wim Jansen and others fell out of favour and were moved on. Burns dismissal was harsh in the eyes of many as his skillful young team were capable of brilliant attacking football in the finest Celtic traditions. But his team failed to stop Rangers closing in on Stein's 9 in a row record. McCann was plain spoken, abraisive and yes, even ruthless at times, but he laid the foundations for all the success Celtic have enjoyed since 1994. His no nonsense approach to the more contemptible sectors of the sporting press in Scotland led to certain newspapers doing a hatchet job on him. He was called penny pinching and compared to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussien. Most fans saw through this vile agenda but an impressionable minority fell for it and sadly booed Fergus as he unfurled the League Championship flag in August 1998. A man who had built for them the biggest club stadium in the UK at the time, sold out season tickets and brought the title to Celtic Park for the first time in a decade was booed by his own fans. He had always asked to be judged on his 5 year plan and said…
"I want people to judge me on what we have achieved after five years. I will go back to my home in Bermuda, play some golf and live a healthier life."
By the time he left Scotland in 1999 the modern Celtic had been born. A more businesslike and professional club, playing in a modern stadium and regularly winning trophies was his legacy. Whether you liked his methods or not he restored a club at death’s door to strength and vigour and made possible so much we take for granted today. If Brother Walfrid, Jock Stein and Willie Maley are the giants of the Celtic story them in my opinion they are followed in turn by Fergus McCann. We owe a debt of gratitude to Fergus and I for one would like to see one of the great Stands he built named in his honour. He once said that following Celtic wasn’t always easy but it was always worthwhile. He often had a rough ride in Scotland, sometimes from his own people but he stuck it out and was the architect in chief of the modern Celtic. He said modestly in 2011…
"I'm just a footnote in the grand scheme of things. Brother Walfrid was the visionary who started things and his is a name that should stay in people's minds.’’
We won’t forget Walfrid Fergus but we won’t forget what you did for Celtic either. We owe the ‘Bunnet’ a huge debt of gratitude and I say on behalf of many thousands of Celtic fans a long overdue; Thank you Fergus.