BY WILLIAM HEANEY
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Fergus McCann’s relationship with Celtic fans has been somewhat turbulent over the past twenty years.
Initially hailed as a hero when he took control of the club, McCann’s popularity nosedived and it’s only in recent times that his contribution and achievements have come to be fully appreciated.
McCann grew up in the mining village of Croy, approximately 14 miles from Glasgow. A keen Celtic fan in his youth, he emigrated to Canada and made his fortune selling golf holidays. However, despite being thousands of miles away, he was still aware of the events surrounding his boyhood heroes.
The early 1990s was one of the darkest periods in Celtic’s history. On the field, they had been left behind by free spending Rangers, who considered domestic triumphs as almost a formality as they targeted success in the Champions League.
However, while regular 4th and 5th place league finishes were worrying, the situation in the Celtic Park boardroom was of far greater concern.
For most of the previous 100 years, ownership of the club had been controlled by two families – the Kellys and the Whites. This meant that board members were often appointed through reasons of surname and entitlement, rather than any expertise with regards to running a football club.
While the team had been in decline for several years, by early 1994, the club was in freefall. Promises of a share issue and a new stadium in Cambuslang proved to be no more than hot air, the desperate acts of desperate men determined to remain in power.
It was obvious that the very future of the club was in doubt, but the fans had seen it coming long ago. Fanzines such as Not the View and Once a Tim had been campaigning for the board’s removal for several years and in the second half of 1993, the group ‘Celts for Change’ started to organise rallies and protests. These events provided a platform for people to express what the majority of fans were thinking – it was time for the old guard to step aside, before it was too late.
On 4th March 1994, with the club close to receivership, McCann came to the rescue. He was able to inject enough finance to satisfy the bank, keep Celtic in business and take over the running of the club, becoming Managing Director.
Upon completing his takeover, McCann made himself clear on two issues: he would remain in charge for five years and he expected a profit for his initial investment of £9 million. He remained steadfast on both.
It’s easy to forget the enormity of the task which McCann faced. He had inherited a club on its knees, making his achievements all the more remarkable. The dilapidated stadium was transformed into the current 60,000 capacity arena, with season ticket sales rocketing from 8,500 to 53,000. Meanwhile, a share issue not only raised millions, it allowed 10,000 fans to own a small part of their club.
Consequently, Celtic were genuinely competitive at domestic level for the first time since the late 1980s. Instead of recruiting players from the English lower leagues – as had become the norm – the squad during the McCann era contained players signed from clubs including AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea and Roma.
That’s not to say that success came easily. During McCann’s reign, Celtic won each domestic trophy once, though two of the triumphs were amongst the most significant of recent times. The Scottish Cup win in 1995 was the first cup of any kind in six years, and the league title in 1998 was the first championship in a decade.
Despite his genuine long-time affection, there was never any danger of emotion or sentiment clouding McCann’s judgement when it came to the day-to-day running of the club. Celtic operated as a business, with every penny accounted for.
With his thick glasses and trademark ‘bunnet’ on his head, it seemed that some rival clubs, and sections of the media, didn’t take him seriously. He was rich, but McCann was no billionaire oligarch. Indeed, his personal wealth didn’t even match that of David Murray, his counterpart across the city at Ibrox. In hindsight, this was perhaps to Celtic’s advantage – there was never any danger of the club ‘living the dream’ and spending beyond their means. The basis of any success, football or financial, would be sound business principles.
However, McCann’s frugal mentality, coupled with his abrasive personality, meant that any honeymoon period following his bail-out of the club was short lived. Making friends was not on his agenda, and he regularly clashed with players and managers.
He had much publicised fall-outs with Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jorge Cadete and Paolo Di Canio, with McCann labelling the trio as the ‘Three Amigos’.
McCann’s working relationships with managers Lou Macari, Tommy Burns and Wim Jansen were almost non-existent. Macari was sacked within months of McCann’s arrival and he tried, unsuccessfully, to sue the club for wrongful dismissal. The judge however, was critical of McCann’s management style, leading one Scottish tabloid to compare him with Saddam Hussein.
There were occasions when his combative style paid off. In 1999, SFA Chief Executive Jim Farry was forced to resign after McCann proved that the game’s governing body had deliberately delayed Cadete’s registration, causing him to miss a Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers.
However, on the opening day of the 1998/99 season, relations between McCann and the supporters hit rock bottom.
Despite delivering Celtic’s first league title in ten years at the end of the previous campaign, Jansen resigned days later. On a day when fans should have been celebrating the previous season’s achievements, they instead booed McCann onto the field as he hoisted the league championship flag. Outraged at the Dutchman’s departure, thousands of fans were quick to let everyone know who they blamed.
There was no fanfare when McCann left Celtic Park for the last time and returned across the Atlantic early the following year. His work was done and he departed with round £40 million – a significant improvement on his original investment.
While some fans were unhappy that he had made a profit and it would be crass to suggest that he had earned such an exorbitant sum, his importance in Celtic’s history cannot be underestimated.
By and large, Celtic still operate today using the McCann approach, sometimes leading to criticism from fans for being overcautious when it comes to spending. However, the club is well run and while other clubs have entered administration or gone out of business, Celtic have gone from strength to strength – nine league titles, seven Scottish Cup wins, five League Cups, three appearances in the last-16 of the Champions League and UEFA Cup finalists in 2003 are testament to that.
McCann was invited to that European final in Seville, but he felt unable to attend, with the abuse he received from fans still rankling. However, he has since met up with the players and management when Celtic have travelled to the States during pre-season.
He will also make his return to Celtic Park – as a guest of the club at the first home match next season. Should Celtic, as expected, clinch this season’s Scottish Premiership title then McCann will have the honour of raising the league flag – he can expect a far more positive reaction than the one he received back in 1998.
When he takes his seat for the match, Fergus McCann can take a look around him with a great deal of satisfaction. Every other Celtic fan in attendance that day should be immensely grateful for the five year period where he revolutionised the club.
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