Just an Ordinary Man...
Their used to be a joke in Dublin which stated that if everyone who claimed their Grandad was in the Post Office with James Connolly in 1916 is telling the truth then there must have been 10,000 Rebels squeezed in there. Similarly, when Celtic fans took direct action to save their club in 1993-94 season, we had a few years of people laying claim to have been at every meeting of the Celts for Change group who led the grass roots Spartacus like revolt. What is not in doubt is that ordinary Celtic supporters saw their club heading for ruin and said enough is enough. The very people the Board thought most easy to control via the propaganda pumped out by the Celtic View in those days had had enough. Rangers were heading for five in a row and Celtic were heading for oblivion before ordinary, working class Celtic supporters, demonstrated the sort of tough love they have for their club. When the boycott of a Celtic home game was proposed following a string of dismal results, the Board issued a statement which said with supreme irony ‘The vast majority of fans won’t back a boycott or be influenced by an unrepresentative minority.’ They still couldn’t see that they themselves were the unrepresentative minority slowly strangling Celtic with their incompetence and small mindedness.
1993-94 was the season of Wayne Biggins and Carl Muggleton, of Lou Macari replacing Liam Brady of dreary defeats and falling attendances. Macari’s route one variety of football had many fans despairing about where Celtic were going. We had a dilapidated stadium, mountain of debt and a poor squad. We had a Board pelted with Mars Bars at home games and fans chanting ‘Sack the Board’ for 90 minutes at every match. Something had to give but the share-holding dynasty which controlled Celtic’s destiny were not going to budge. We were treated to the bizarre sight of Director Kevin Kelly stepping between toxic puddles on a piece of industrial waste ground at Cambuslang holding aloft an artist’s impression of the super stadium Celtic were ready to build there. Bizarrely, he had even hired a horse which wandered about in the background trying to give the impression that the site was healthy and clean. It took the press less than an hour to phone the backers of this scheme and confirm that it was all a cruel fantasy. As Fergus McCann and Brian Dempsey sought out shareholders all over the UK and Ireland to gain support for a takeover bid, Celts for Change, spearheaded by Matt McGlone, Brendan Sweeney, Colin Duncan, David Cunningham and John Thompson were organising large and often bellicose meetings. One in the City Halls in Glasgow’s Merchant City was bursting at the seams as 2500 fans crammed in to hear the increasingly skilled and eloquent Celts for Change speakers demand change and warn the assembled fans that the club was in mortal danger. These weren’t middle class money men with an agenda to seize the club. They were ordinary working class Celtic fans who saw the club they loved heading for administration or perhaps worse and got off their asses and did something about it. It’s hard not to contrast this determination to take direct action to save Celtic with the apathetic ‘something will turn up’ mentality of fans of the now dead Rangers FC who did nothing as their club died. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that the establishment club’s fans were used to being guided through their history safe in the knowledge that their friends in powerful positions were looking after them. Celtic’s fan base however was more rebellious and used to struggling and fighting for what was right, even if it was with the custodians of the club.
Things came to a head in that traumatic season 20 years ago when many of the fans finally decided, amid much pain and soul searching, to boycott a game. It’s no easy matter for those who love Celtic to deliberately stay away from a game but it was the price of sending a clear signal to the board and perhaps even saving the club. Knowing the club would inflate the gate in order to undermine the Celts for Change led boycott, the group stationed a member at every turnstile to count the fans going in. The attendance was less than 10,000 and this had alarm bells ringing in the board room. With the debt growing, the Stadium in need of rebuilding post Hillsborough Report and the fans in open rebellion the first cracks appeared. It would take several more months of pressure but by March 1994 Fergus McCann and his allies were able to buy enough shares to oust the old board and set Celtic onto a better path. It is a matter of some regret that some members of the old board walked away with a lot of money despite running Celtic into the ground. However, they were gone and the rebuilding could begin. It’s a matter of history how the Celtic fans rallied around and made McCann’s share issue a huge success. They bought season tickets in huge numbers and this helped rebuild the stadium and the team. At last there was hope and at last Celtic were ready to challenge for major honours again. When Brian Dempsey, flanked by Fergus McCann, stood outside Celtic Park on a wet March night to tell fans who had waited in the rain for hours the news they longed to hear, it was a victory for us all. Not least those who saw their Club in peril and decided to act. Dempsey told them the news that the old board was gone with the memorable phrase, ‘The Battle is over, the Rebels have won!’ Amid the raucous cheers and singing which followed this announcement, there was also quiet satisfaction from those in groups like Celts for Change who led from the front and were an important part of the revolution which ousted the old board. They would no doubt point to the Celtic support who read their leaflets, attended their monster rallies and in the end forced the board to act by voting with their feet. But any revolution needs leaders and those ordinary Celtic fans who had had enough of mismanagement and penny pinching at their beloved club provided leadership at a vital moment in Celtic’s history. They informed fans via leaflets and meeting about the real state of Celtic’s finances. They appeared regularly in the media, organised meetings and demonstrations outside Celtic Park and even at the HQ of the Bank who propped up the old board. In those pre-internet day their organisational skills and ability to give a coherent and united voice to the fans concerns was vital. Fergus McCann and his financial acumen may have fostered the new Celtic in the years after 1994 and helped it grow and prosper. However, Celts for change under the guidance of Matt McGlone, Brendan Sweeney, Colin Duncan, David Cunningham and John Thompson were the catalysts who helped deliver the new Celtic into a brighter and more promising future. For that we owe them all a huge vote of thanks. They didn’t just talk the talk, these committed Celts walked the walk too.
Celtic Football Club recognised the role played by the Celts for Change organisation 20 years ago by unveiling a plaque recently at the foot of the Jimmy Johnstone statue. It was the Club’s way of thanking and honouring a bunch of ordinary Celtic fans who did extraordinary things to help save their club 20 years ago. Few back them could have envisaged the re-emergence of Celtic as the dominant club in Scotland nor the collapse of their main rivals. These modest guys will no doubt smile each time they pass the plaque but I suspect they’ll smile more as they see Celtic lifting honours and see the club in the best financial shape of its history. They may even echo the words of a Christy Moore song….’I’m an ordinary man, nothing special nothing grand’ But trust me lads, you did something very grand indeed, you fought for something you loved and for that we salute you.