Saturday, 22 February 2014


From the Celtic end I could see the flash of red as the Referee raised the card. He was off and the odds of Celtic winning this titanic struggle with Rangers just increased. There was an ugly mood among many of the Celtic support on the huge open terraces of Hampden. The team were playing well and the Referee had infuriated the green clad supporters with some of his decisions not least of which was a soft penalty decision which gave Rangers the lead at a time Celtic were looking the more likely winners. Aitken and Butcher were giving as good as they were getting from each other but the six foot three Englishman threw himself to the floor and the referee pointed to the spot.  Now the referee was sending off a Celtic player and virtually sealing our fate. As I watched the blonde Celtic striker trot off the field much to the delight of the baying hordes in blue in one half of Hampden he did something which infuriated them. He blessed himself. In any other country this is a gesture which passes without remark. In Scotland it is taken as an insult by the bigoted minority who have yet to leave the dark ages. Supporters who had filled the air throughout the game with songs insulting the Pope and glorifying being ‘ Up to their knees in Fenian blood’ were incensed. In the packed Celtic end we watched as the game descended into farce. Referee Syme sent off Tony Shepherd for apparently striking him when he was clearly nowhere near the bumbling official. When it was pointed out to him that he had been struck by a coin from the crowd and not the Celtic player he rather embarrassingly changed his decision. How a Referee can red card a player for an incident he clearly didn’t see, because it never happened, was beyond us all.

The player sent off that day was of course Maurice Johnston and some among the Celtic support saw his actions in blessing himself as he was sent off at Hampden as a two fingered gesture to the poisonous bigotry that poured from the covered end of Hampden. Few of the 74,000 fans at that match could have envisaged that this quintessentially Celtic player and such a figure of hate for many Rangers fans would one day be sitting beside Graham Souness in the Blue room at Ibrox being introduced as Rangers first Catholic signing in a lifetime. This summer marks 25 years since Maurice joined Rangers and that act still raises strong opinions in many. The manner in which Maurice joined Rangers hurt and angered many among the Celtic support. Yes, the Celtic board mishandled the deal to bring Johnston to Celtic Park by parading him to the media before the contract was signed. But consider the words of Maurice as he clutched a Celtic shirt and beamed at the prospect of returning to Celtic Park…

‘I’ll finish my career here, I don’t want to play for any other club’

Indeed the boyhood Celtic fan and former pupil of St Roch’s  school in the Celtic mad Garngad district of Glasgow had actually written a sarcastic paragraph in his biography during his first spell with Celtic…

"I might even agree to become Rangers' first Catholic if they paid me £1m and bought me Stirling Castle. Let me spell out where I stand. I am a Celtic man through and through and so I dislike Rangers because they are a force in Scottish football and therefore a threat to the club I love. But more than that, I hate the religious policy they maintain."

Maurice must have known the fury and pain his decision to jilt Celtic at the altar and head for Ibrox would cause. Money played its part as did his Agent, Bill McMurdo, an Orangeman and Unionist who hates Celtic and all it represents. That McMurdo was instrumental in informing Souness that he could steal Johnston from under Celtic’s nose is not in doubt. But Johnston only had to say no and keep his promise to re-join Celtic. Many looked on in disbelief as he sat smiling in the Blue Room as Souness introduced him as Rangers’ new striker. Outside Ibrox the more bigoted elements burned scarves and ripped up season books. Some of them would never accept Johnston as a Rangers player. David Miller, general secretary of the Rangers Supporters Association, told the Glasgow Herald:

"It's a sad day for Rangers. I don't want to see a Roman Catholic at Ibrox."

Across the city the Celtic fans’ confusion eventually gave way to anger at this shameful ‘betrayal.’  ‘Judas’ had sold his soul for Murray’s gold, dripping as it was with a century of sectarianism. Johnston had almost uniquely managed to become a figure of hate for sections of both the Glasgow Clubs fans. His life at Ibrox would include frostiness from players wedded to old sectarian ideas of what Rangers was about and hostility from many of his new club’s supporters. Indeed some refused to cheer when he scored a goal. One said to me at the time, ‘For me Rangers didn’t win nine in a row because I don’t count any goals scored by that bastard Johnston.’ Such hostility must have made his life difficult both on and off the pitch. His goal in the final seconds of an Old Firm game at Ibrox was a bitter pill for the Celtic support who were watching a very promising team begin to drift apart. Johnston had been allowed to escape to Ibrox. McClair left for Manchester United and Murdo McLeod left for Germany. There was a brief renaissance under Billy McNeil in the Centenary season but Rangers, true to Murray’s Thatcherite principles, were outspending Celtic massively and set for a decade of domination. There is no doubt that Celtic’s lack of success in the years after Johnston’s ‘betrayal’ made some supporters more visceral in their hatred of him. The reception he received in games at Celtic Park was as hostile as any I have ever witnessed a visiting player receive. The boyhood Celtic fan would have become a Celtic legend had he rejoined Celtic and helped them challenge big spending Rangers. Instead he chose to insult them in the greatest and most hurtful way he could. Few can square his statements of undying affection for Celtic with his decision to join their ancient and most bitter rivals. Yes, it signalled and end of Rangers policy of not employing Catholic players but the manner this was done was, in the eyes of many Celtic fans, an unforgivable betrayal.

It is now 25 years since Rangers signed Mo Johnston and many Catholic players represented the club before its demise in 2012. The new club playing at Ibrox is continuing to play a mixed team and that is only right in the modern game. Sadly some among the support still harbour the same outdated prejudices which saw them burn scarves and season books outside Ibrox 25 years ago. A great opportunity was missed by Charles Green when he bought the assets of the dead club and founded the new one. He could have had the moral courage to tell fans of the old club that they were welcome to support the new club but that the bigotry and prejudice of the past was not welcome at Ibrox. Instead he pandered to the more lumpen elements among the support and encouraged a myth that bigoted forces had kicked Rangers when they were down. Of course this risible nonsense was more to do with selling season tickets than reflecting reality. Murray, who led Rangers into the abyss, had allowed his ego to inflate like the club’s debt and in the end it killed Rangers. The same money grabbing attitude which encouraged Johnston to join Rangers 25 years earlier was still at work. Green played the Ibrox support like a violin before leaving with his bank account considerably healthier.

For those of you too young to remember the fuss caused by Maurice Johnston’s signing for Rangers it must be difficult to comprehend the anger this caused to both sides for very different reasons. For some Celtic followers Johnston totally betrayed Celtic and their support. He was one of us, how could he do that to us? For the more Neanderthal amongst the Rangers support, one of ‘them’ had signed for their club and in time honoured fashion the bigot falls back on their old prejudice. In terms of the history of the Scottish game and Scottish society, someone had to be the first Catholic in over 70 years to join Rangers and end their abysmal and immoral apartheid system.  However the manner and context of what happened 25 years ago still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many Celtic fans.  Johnston can talk about breaking down barriers or historical moments in Scottish football but the truth is he was probably motivated by more prosaic issues such as money.  For any Celtic fan selling out the club we love is unthinkable and that is why in the eyes of many Maurice Johnston remains unforgiven.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Hearts and Minds
When I was barely old enough to shave I noticed a book belonging to my older brother’s lying around the house. It was entitled ‘Ireland, the propaganda war: The Media and the Battle for Hearts and Minds.’ As an avid reader I set about devouring the book and my young mind became open to the fact that the powers that be will use the media to disseminate lies, half-truths and distortions of reality to further their political aims. Of course growing up in the Garngad meant that there were always alternative views about the troubles to be had from printed and verbal accounts of important events. I recall a watching huge anti H-Block rally on the Royston Road in the early 1980s which attracted an equally large counter demonstration from what I can only describe as a hate filled mob. The violence that day in Glasgow was on an epic scale and only the presence of huge numbers of Police officers stopped a bad situation turning deadly. The Daily Record ‘helpfully’ printed the entire route of the march and times that morning on the grounds that it’d help drivers avoid it. It merely gave a road map to every bigot within a hundred miles. All of these events are part of growing up and to a degree part of one’s political education. Propaganda from the UK based media generally printed the perceived version of events which claimed that the Irish conflict was a religious struggle between two tribes who had yet to leave medieval times. Sure weren’t the good old British merely keeping the two tribes of ‘mad Paddys’ apart with impartiality and fairness? The fact that this was a post-colonial struggle and that the British military were far from impartial was lost on the average UK citizen. The power of propaganda helped keep the general population in the dark about the dirty war the British state engaged in. It was a campaign which far superior writers than I have described in all its tawdry detail.
Those of you who know my writing will know my aversion to mixing politics and football. I accept that it’s impossible to totally separate sport and politics particularly given the crude attempts to insert military personnel at virtually every major sporting and cultural event we see. This reached its low point with the embarrassing scenes at Ibrox Stadium when Armed Forces personnel were filmed singing distasteful songs and generally joining in a frenzied atmosphere which was more Nuremburg rally than a sombre remembrance of the nation’s war dead. Of course, the media had to comment on these scenes but was much more restrained than one might have expected.
In the football arena, many who follow Celtic are convinced that the reporting of key events at Celtic Park is often negative to the point where they see an anti-Celtic agenda. Of course, Newspapers and Radio Station sports phone in shows make editorial decisions about issues such as the liquidation of Rangers in 2012. They can’t afford to lose a large section of their audience so a party line is put out and the presenters generally follow it. The truth is less important than the audience figures which support the advertising revenues which they so rely upon. In the last decade though a new player has entered the game and that of course is the internet. The voiceless suddenly had a voice and the media could no longer print their half-truths and distortions without them being scrutinised closely.

For the average Celtic fan several issues were keenly debated. Chief among these was the treatment of Neil Lennon in Scotland. The ‘He brings it all on himself’ tosh no longer washes. Other players (Souness & Strachan, etc.) were hot headed and even aggressive but they weren’t sent bombs and bullets or assaulted on numerous occasions as Lennon has. His image in the press has been distorted to such a degree that he has become a figure of hate to some. Consider the reporting of the Daily Record with its infamous ‘Thugs and Thieves’ headline when Lennon was a player. A front page spread and several inside pages condemned him as little more than a thug and yet when this version of events was proven to be utter nonsense in court, the paper’s grudging apology to Lennon was hidden away on page six and consisted of a single paragraph. When Martin O’Neil, at a pre-match press conference in Barcelona castigated a section of the Ibrox crowd following a Rangers v Celtic match for vile racist and sectarian abuse of Lennon, the majority of the Scottish media were virtually silent. To his credit, Graham Spiers, not on official duty that day at Ibrox, printed what he heard around him in the Ibrox centre stand and it was a catalogue of truly shameful and foul mouthed bigotry.

The burning of the RIFC coach some months back was immediately portrayed as a hate crime by some before any of the facts were established. McCoist unwisely let his mouth get ahead of his brain on that occasion and one scurrilous piece of reporting carried the story of the bus fire beside a picture of Celtic fans at a pre-season friendly. The picture and the story were entirely unrelated but the implication was clear. Guilt by association seems the likely motivation for that piece of crass ‘churnalism.’ It seems some reporters can’t resist the anti-Celtic slant on stories. When Lennon was sent an explosive device, one paper led with the utterly misleading headline ‘Police hunt Celtic Bomb Fiend.’  Any cursory glance at such a headline would make the reader assume some Celtic related person was a bomb fiend when in fact Celtic, embodied by their Manager Neil Lennon were the victims in this case!

Of course we can now smile at the blindly positive spin put on stories concerning Rangers over the years. (Oldco and Newco) From Minty’s space age casino with its floating pitch to the ‘Billionaire with off the radar wealth’ who was coming to make them top dogs in Europe. No attempt at serious investigative journalism was undertaken when writing these fantasies. It was propaganda in its purest form aimed at boosting the morale of the Rangers support and pleasing the people the laptop loyal were out to support. There are far too many incidents of such reporting for me ever to offer a definitive list. As a Celtic fan I got used to waking up on the morning of a vital old Firm game to be greeted by headlines such as ‘McStay Leaving,’ or on the morning of the 1995 Cup Final to the headline ‘My greatest fear is Pierre will dive and win them a penalty.’ In 1998 as Celtic won their first title in a decade the Sunday Mail carried a photograph of Paul Lambert decked out in Celtic scarves. On one of the scarves an Irish Republican image had been so poorly photo-shopped on you would have thought an 8 year old had done it. What is the motivation for such mischief? Such reporting scarcely deserves the name.

In all of this the real losers will be the discredited mainstream media who see their audiences dwindle as people wise up to their spin and opt for more trustworthy sources of information. I can’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper and my once avid listening to radio phone in shows has all but stopped. For many Celtic fans the back tracking on the death of Rangers by some reporters would be funny if it wasn’t such a cynical attempt to re-write history. Many Celtic fans have had their eyes opened as they consider the the treatment of Neil Lennon, Fergus McCann and the club in general in sections of the media.  For me the pivotal moment when I realised that not all we read is the truth came from the inescapable logic of  that book about the Propaganda war in Ireland I read when I was a lad.  You have to ask yourself who gains from these stories and why do they write them. That usually leads you to the puppet masters pulling the strings of some of these so called journalists. As George Orwell said a long time ago…

 ‘Journalism is printing what other people do not want printed; everything else is public relations.’

Thankfully more and more of us are seeing past the agendas and learning to think for ourselves. That we become better informed is a vital component of any healthy democratic society. In some ways we get the press we deserve if we buy their publications and swallow their lies. I think the tide has turned now though and we are much more able to see through the garbage we once swallowed whole.


Saturday, 8 February 2014

On Our Own Merits

Brian Dempsey looked around the group of men gathered with their partners in a plush city centre hotel. It was in some ways a diverse group but all of them shared one common feature; a love for Celtic Football Club. Dempsey surprised them by asking each of the nine men present to stand and state just what Celtic meant to them. As they did so, it was apparent that this amazing Football Club with its unique history was deeply embedded in the hearts of all of them. As Fergus McCann stood there was rapt attention. The man who was undoubtedly the driving force of the 1994 takeover of the club began to speak and as he did so, Matt McGlone, one of the key players in the Celts for change fan group which gave a voice to the ordinary supporters in those troubled times, noted what he said. The little Scots-Canadian, a man noted for straight talking said to them…

‘As Celtic fans we can be proud of ourselves and what we have achieved in our lives because what we have achieved has been achieved on our own merits. We haven’t had to join any secret organisation to get to where we are today and that’s important to you.’

With that McCann sat down and no doubt contemplated the size of the task he and his ‘Rebels’ had on their hands to restore Celtic to pre-eminence in Scotland and respectability in Europe. The ousting of the old board which had brought Celtic close to extinction was in the eyes of many a cause for celebration but in the cold light of day the new board knew that they were faced with a mountain of debt, a dilapidated stadium and a team of only moderate ability. On the south side of Glasgow they also faced an adversary flush with money, arrogance and the ‘They put down a fiver, I’ll put down a tenner’ mentality of their Chairman, David Murray.  They exhibited in those days what Walter Smith unwisely described as ‘A Protestant superiority syndrome.’  That their particular house of cards was built on unsustainable borrowing was not yet clear.

As that group of Celtic fans enjoyed their food they were well aware that they had a mountain to climb if they were going to restore Celtic’s fortunes. However the little man from Canada had a plan. Fergus McCann was well aware that the Taylor Report, commissioned following the tragic events at Hillsborough in 1989, called for all-Seater stadia to become the standard for major sports grounds in the UK. In 1994 Celtic Park had just over 8500 seats and the only viable option was to build a new stadium. McCann’s vision was that the supporters of Celtic FC across the whole spectrum from business people to working class fans would rally and support a share issue which would re-finance the ailing giant and kick start the renaissance of the club they all held so dear. Of course the media and even the ousted director Michael Kelly scoffed at the very idea of Celtic supporters having the money or desire to invest in Celtic with no guarantee as to what the future might hold. The naysayers hadn’t bargained on the incredible pull Celtic has on people who hold the club dear. McCann’s share issue was hugely oversubscribed and the funds were then in place to make the dream of building a fitting modern home for Celtic a reality. Again the doubters questioned if a club like Celtic would ever fill a 60,000 seater stadium but as each of the huge stands rose from the east-end mud, it was quickly sold out as the fans played their part and rallied to the cause.

If McCann’s business acumen was the driving force in the new found confidence and financial stability at the club, his influence on the playing side wasn’t always as he would have wished. His style could be abrasive and he had little patience with prima donna players who sought to alter contracts they had previously agreed to. He also found the Scottish media to be both hostile and vindictive once it became clear he wouldn’t play ball by their old rules. As Rangers closed in on 9 in a row, a section of the support, often cajoled by the hostile Scottish Press, pressured McCann to spend big to match Rangers. McCann, living up to the adage that ‘the conductor of the orchestra often has to turn his back on the crowd’ refused to budge from his carefully planned financial strategy.  David Low, a McCann insider in those times commented…

“We weren’t immune and Fergus and the board came under tremendous pressure from our fans who wanted us to ‘Spend, spend, spend’ because that was what Rangers were doing. But we didn’t do it for two reasons: Firstly, it was wrong, you can’t spend money you don’t have. Secondly, a lot of the money had to go to the stadium.’’

There was, of course, joy unconfined when Celtic won the title in 1998 to stop the dreaded ‘Ten’ but as Wim Jansen walked away in the aftermath of that triumph, many again questioned McCann’s methods. Few doubted his ability to properly re-structure Celtic as a business but his man management skills were thought by some to be unforgiving and even ruthless. Whatever the truth, Celtic fans should consider the current situation in Scottish football very carefully. The collapse and subsequent liquidation of Rangers in 2012 sent shock waves throughout the game. They were buried under a mountain of debt and shame as they had spent beyond their means trying to be a major player in European football. They had paid players using tax avoidance schemes which went undeclared to the SFA and led to claims of ‘financial doping’ on an industrial scale. McCann’s insistence on Celtic living within their means was vindicated as both right and sensible. As Rangers sank into a cess pit of their own making, Celtic were in sound financial health and looking dominant both on and off the park. Celtic Park stands as a monument not just to McCann but to those thousands of Celts who bought into the dream of making their club strong and vibrant again.

In late 1998 as the team struggled to retain the title they had won the previous season, James Traynor wrote a sneering and in the end prophetically wrong article in his tabloid rag which slated McCann with the words….

‘Listen to this Fergus and try to take it in. You insult your club’s fans when they are told they don’t understand the economics of the business or the workings of the transfer market. And stop telling them players are too greedy and make enormous demands.  These are not newly-uncovered secrets, Fergus. The fact is fans don’t give a damn about how much money players want to grab for themselves and unlike McCann they don’t spend too much time fretting about the profit margin.  No one is greatly impressed either that McCann appears to have embarked on some kind of holy crusade to bring football’s expenditure under control, and his season- ticket holders would rather have the title with some debt run up on the transfer market than no title and no borrowings.’

This astonishingly short sighted article which attacked McCann’s sensible approach to financial matters is rather poignant when one considers the total collapse of Rangers from pursuing just such a reckless spending policy. In the late 1990s as McCann ensured Celtic were on a safe and secure financial path, David Murray was spending countless millions on players and putting the club on the road to perdition. Traynor completed the confirmation of his utter ineptitude by stating that…’The signing of cut price striker Lubomir Moravcic will further embarrass the fans.’  

McCann took hard decisions based on the business principles which had made him successful. He was far from perfect and rubbed many up the wrong way but his guiding vision was to see a strong, financially secure Celtic enter the new millennium in good health. This season the Club looks certain to secure its 9th title of the new century and is currently in the best financial health in its history.  When McCann took control in 1994, Celtic lagged way behind Rangers both on and off the field. It was a gulf which many at the time felt was unbridgeable. His legacy is in the transformation of the club and its return to dominance at home and respect abroad. There will always be disputes about the balance between corporate success and playing success and those are valid arguments. But consider where Celtic might be today if they had heeded Mr Traynor’s advice to chase success by spending and taking on debt?

Only once did Fergus McCann take the road which made least business sense and that was in the very early days of the takeover. It would have made more financial sense to let Celtic go bankrupt and acquire it on the cheap as we saw Charles Green do when he bought the assets of the liquidated Rangers. However McCann rightly wanted to ensure the continuity of an unbroken history. He stated…

‘It would’ve cost less, and left the previous owners with nothing, to go into liquidation. But it would also be humiliating for Celtic. So we paid all the bills.’

The vast majority of Celtic supporters are glad he did and despite his occasional harshness with figures such as the revered Tommy Burns there is increasing recognition of the pivotal role McCann played in saving Celtic and making it fit for the new millennium. He also took on the scurrilous sections of the media and wasn’t afraid to challenge the footballing authorities either if he felt they were treating Celtic less than fairly. This was most clearly demonstrated when he pursued the SFA over their disgraceful holding up of Jorge Cadete’s transfer registration for weeks at a vital point in that season. Again the press vilified him and again he was proved right as Farry was forced to resign. It was a shameful episode for Scottish football and the fact that two internal SFA enquiries cleared Farry before McCann’s legal team pointed out the glaring unfairness to Celtic did nothing to improve confidence in the SFA’s impartiality.

The passage of time has made Fergus McCann’s contribution to Celtic clearer. Yes, he was a dominant and sometimes ruthless operator but he got things done and secured Celtic’s future. He could have done without the hassle from the media and a section of his own club’s support but he stuck to his 5 year plan and rescued a dying club. We may not all be comfortable with the model of capitalism that allowed him to move on with a handsome profit once his stint was over but when he took over a debt ridden business operating out of a ramshackle stadium who would have predicted he would have made any profit out of it at all? He put his money where his mouth was and arrived with a vision to revitalise Celtic. He did just that. He once said…

“Celtic means the same to me as it does to other fans. I identify with the club and wish to be proud of it. That’s all. If in my role I helped in some way to make the regular supporter proud then I am more than satisfied. It was a great privilege to be able to help Celtic.”

Next summer we have an opportunity to thank Fergus McCann properly for what he did for Celtic 20 years ago. There has been a technological revolution since McCann took over Celtic in 1994 and we are no longer as influenced by the worst elements in the tabloid media as we were 20 years ago. Some of those unworthy ‘journalists’ who compared him to Saddam Hussein and attempted to destroy his credibility managed to  brainwash a minority into actually booing McCann as he unveiled the 1998 League flag. I’m sure there will be a demonstration of respect from the vast majority of Celtic fans this time around which will demonstrate that we do now understand and appreciate all Fergus did for the club. In my estimation only Brother Walfrid, Willie Maley and Jock Stein were more important in moulding the Celtic we all know and love. I for one will be glad of the opportunity to say my own thank you to Fergus McCann for all he did for Celtic.  In his modest way he said 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 will never forget Brother Walfrid nor the principles upon which he founded Celtic but most of us would disagree about Fergus McCann being just a footnote. He was a very important figure in the shaping of the modern Celtic. Thank you Fergus.