A new season starts today with another opportunity to celebrate the unfurling of a championship flag. Doing the honours today will be Mayo man John Keane, someone to whom we all owe a great debt of gratitude for helping to save our club at the time of its most dire necessity. He personally handed over a substantial sum of money to the Bank of Scotland in order to avoid the disastrous consequences of insolvency, and while he has never been someone who courts publicity, he will find out this afternoon that we appreciate what he did during those dark days.
It’s often salutory to remember how close the club came to ruin in order to maintain some perspective when relatively trivial issues cause disaffection these days. And so, here’s a trip down Amnesia Lane with an extract from Andy Murdoch’s partwork on Celtic in the 90s recalling the events of March 1994.
Thank you John Keane and Happy Flag Day.
On the Friday February 25th 1994 the Celtic board called a press conference. This was to be a dramatic announcement. Cambuslang was a reality. David Smith, Patrick Nally and Kevin Kelly faced the media to deliver one of the most astonishing addresses ever given to the Scottish football press. In a pronouncement to match the ‘Unsinkable’ tag applied to Titanic, Smith told an incredulous press pack that the funding for Cambuslang was in place thanks to a London-based company called Gefinor. There was to be a share issue which would finally allow fans to buy shares. The board, we were being led to believe, had come through against all the odds and these plans for our Brave New Celtic World would be ratified at an EGM.
Smith’s posture during all this was something to behold – sitting with his arms folded as tight as they could get, his delivery was determined to the point of contemptuous. Patrick Nally was his usual bombastic self while Kevin Kelly, meanwhile, sat with the best ‘I’m a very powerful business man’ look that he could muster.
Everyone knew it was a complete fairy story. Worse yet, it took about an hour to prove it. Gefinor were contacted. They denied all knowledge of finding money to give to the Celtic board. Superstadia, the company who were to design the new stadium, knew nothing about it, although they were adamant that, whatever it was, they would be building it. Their high powered, moving and shaking offices looked like some kind of dodgy taxi rank. The whole plan was ridiculed on the evening news programmes. It was to be the last misjudgement of the Kelly/White/Grant regime.
The following Tuesday Gefinor officially stated that they had nothing to do with the Celtic plans. They had held talks with Stadivarious, but nothing was agreed, or signed. An executive for the bank said that they were, ‘Shocked by the announcement of a deal’. It was all going seriously wrong for the board now.
Wednesday March 2nd was one of the strangest days Celtic Park has ever seen. The Celts for Change pressure group had declared an official boycott of the game. They were pretty confident that fewer than 10,000 people would attend. The board disagreed. Celts for Change stationed someone at every turnstile; they would compile their own attendance figure. When released the figures would differ by 2,000. But by then attendance figures were the last thing on the mind of the board members. The Bank of Scotland had received a request for payment from Middlesborough. They wanted the money they were owed for Willie Falconer. The bank refused.
They contacted the board demanding an immediate meeting regarding the level of debt at the club. In attendance for the board were Kevin Kelly, Tom Grant, James Farrell and Jack McGinn. The Bank put the club’s financial position to the assembled directors. They sat in stunned silence. What the bank was telling them bore little resemblance to what they had been told by David Smith. Basically the bank was ready to call in the receivers. Michael Kelly later said he thought this was a bluff by the bank.
Immediately after the meeting the bank released a statement saying that the club was in, ‘Immediate and dire peril of being put into receivership.’ An indication of how badly the club had been managed was the value of Celtic’s net assets – one sixtieth of (RIP) Rangers’ value; even Thistle were valued at four times Celtic’s worth!
Kevin Kelly called for the resignations of David Smith, and Chris White on the basis that they had misled the board regarding the financial situation. He announced that the club had entered negotiations with Brain Dempsey and Fergus McCann over the future of the club.
A TV crew found David Smith at Glasgow airport; he was on his way to Celtic Park, and still trying to talk his way out of it. Things had been fine, he maintained, until the first 10 minutes of the New Year Glasgow derby against Rangers (currently being liquidated) and the cup defeat by Motherwell.
Smith and Chris White departed, selling their shares to McCann for a tidy sum, and Michael Kelly seethed off into the distance. Having sold his shares as well he was under the impression his cousin Kevin would sell too, and was deeply unhappy at Kevin’s decision to stay. Mind you, we were all a bit gutted that Kev was still there.
Michael Kelly would later describe the removal of the old board as, ‘The dirty campaign, conceived in vengeance, born in deceit.’ That may well have been the case, but the fact was that the family dynasty that had controlled the club for nearly a century had constituted nothing more than a gravy train for those lucky enough to be part of it. The members of those families considered the money that people like you and I paid to see Celtic to be their money. Anyone who dared try and ask for more was cast out, branded as greedy, unworthy of the Celtic jersey. And the worst part of it was that for too many years than we’d like to mention we all believed it. They fed us a mountain of garbage about the honour of wearing the jersey being worth more than money, and it was swallowed whole. Players like Dalglish and Nicholas were pilloried because they knew their worth and weren’t prepared to let themselves be short changed so that the directors could eat in the best places, and live in the best houses on the strength of the talent of others.
The situation was summed up in the leader article of NTV 48; ‘All we are left to do is regret the lost opportunities, the lost five years, the hundreds and thousands of pounds that could have been invested in the club instead of being wasted if these tiny, frightened men had, just once, put Celtic first.’
Five years? Try ninety.
By the end of Friday the 4th of March Celtic had a new team at the helm. The car park at the stadium was filled with jubilant fans, one of them yelling at the top of his voice the newspaper headline for the day – McCann’s the Man!
The Bunnet had dunnit. Fergus McCann was the CEO, Dominic Keane was a director, Michael MacDonald (stepson of Gerald Weisfeld) was also now a director. Curiously, the man who had been at the forefront of the whole thing, Brian Dempsey, was not. He claimed to have no interest in returning to the Celtic Board, although he would be investing a substantial sum in the club. However this money never appeared, and Dempsey’s relationship with McCann quickly soured.
The next day the team took to the field at McDairmid Park. It was only seventeen weeks since our last visit there, but in that time we’d gone through four managers and two boards. The ground was packed out with jubilant Celtic fans with many more watching from vantage points outside the ground. To signal a real change the team actually won an away fixture. Paul Byrne scored the first goal of the new era in the first minute, and that was enough to win the game.
We followed that with a 0:0 at Easter Road, noteworthy only for the first appearance as a substitute of a youngster called Simon Donnelly.
In between those fixtures we saw the departure from Celtic Park of the man, the myth, the legend that was Wayne Biggins. Having scored the grand total of zero goals for the team, Macari somehow managed to convince Joe Jordan to part with a sum of money for this most worthless of players.
The first home game under McCann saw Celtic Park hold its biggest crowd for several years for a match not involving the now deceased Rangers. Over 36,000 turned up to give the Bunnet an indication of what kind of support Celtic could get. Unfortunately the team gave a performance that underlined why some of those 36,000 had been staying away in the first place. A truly terrible performance ended with a 1:0 defeat.
Our next home game, a 2:1 win against Raith (Donnelly scoring both) was four days later, was played in front of 20,000 fewer spectators. Clearly it would take more than a better looking balance sheet to get people back through the Celtic Park turnstiles.
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