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.


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