The Circus Rolls On

Build a 60,000 stadium, float an over-subscribed share issue, win the league and leave with a £40 million profit? All in a day’s work (well, five years’ work to be more accurate) for Fergus McCann.  20 years on, AB MURDOCH and The Wild Colonial Bhoy look back at the revolution and its aftermath.

March 2012: Celtic are top of the league, still involved in the Scottish Cup and are in rude financial health by comparison with just about every other club in Scotland.

We have the biggest stadium in the country – the most atmospheric in Britain according to a Radio 5 poll – and over 40,000 season ticket holders. The club conveys the impression of an organisation that is being run professionally on the both the football and business sides.

All of this is thanks to Fergus McCann. Without his intervention 18 years ago Celtic wouldn’t be in this position. In all likelihood we would still have had the White/ Kelly/Grant families clinging on for goodness knows how long in the boardroom – albeit with reduced powers – we would probably still have our old Victorian working museum of a stadium, with bucket seats bolted on to the terraces, and the number of shareholders would still be limited to the friends and family of the board.

Such was the confidence of the Celtic football public in the club’s custodians back in the pre-McCann days that attendances were averaging scarcely over 20,000, barely imaginable today. It’s doubtful if the trophy cleaner would have broken sweat over the course of the last few years either without the intervention of the Bunnet.

McCann’s influence still echoes around Celtic Park. From his first day in charge he did not hide his intention to make money out of this venture. He was a Celtic fan – a son of Croy an ex-committee member of the local supporters bus – but that wasn’t going to affect his judgement when it came to making hard decisions.

He made it clear from the start that he only planned to stay for five years. In that time he said he would arrange the finance necessary to redevelop Celtic Park into a 60,000 seater stadium; he would also release cash for the manager to invest in the team and in addition he would float a share issue to allow ordinary supporters – members of the Worldwide Celtic family – to own a small part of what we have always, rather romantically at times, called ‘our club.’

Not on the Bunnet’s agenda were quick fixes and buying sprees. He intended to leave us with a stadium that other clubs would envy, a team to be proud of and stability both financially and within the boardroom.

During his tenure in charge he kept every one of the promises he made. The share issue went ahead and, despite almost universal scepticism from the ‘experts’ in the Scottish media who prophesied in their Casandra-like fashion about what a failure it would be, it turned out to be over-subscribed. It was, at the time, the most successful share issue ever by a British football club.

The stadium was rebuilt in what seemed like a remarkably short period of time with a capacity of over 60,000. Given the attendance figures in the years immediately before the Fergus revolution this was cited as further proof of the Bunnet’s insanity. Still, they said the same about Kevin Costner in that awful baseball movie when his character uttered the immortal lines, ‘If you build it they’ll come.’

Yet despite all this, there was a deep mistrust of McCann among some sections of the support at the time. It was partly fuelled by a vicious propaganda campaign directed at him by the tabloids, but it left so much of a bad smell behind that there were some supporters willing to show their appreciation for the Bunnet’s efforts by treating him to a chorus of lusty boos as he hoisted the league championship flag inside the stadium he had done so much to bring to fruition.

There are those who say that although he was entitled to earn some money from his endeavour, he took too much money when he left. Added to the charge sheet was the lack of a decent training facility.

The second point is certainly something to throw back at him, but at least he acknowledged that himself when he left. As for how much money he took, he put his money on the table and spun the wheel; the fact that he got back such a healthy return was due solely to the club being in such rude health and he was the main force in getting it there.

For many he was a man who, at the time, could do no right. The tabloid press in particular hated him with a passion. Prior to his taking up power some in the press had a pop at him when he turned up in Glasgow unaware that we were playing Rangers in a cup-tie that evening. Fair enough, he should have been told. But he was mainly concerned with getting control of the club before it died on its arse. Compared to that the League Cup is meaningless.

The best know tabloid attack came in the shape of a Daily Record front page, which juxtaposed a picture Fergus beside one of ruthless Iraqi dictator and mass murderer Sadam Hussein. Not only did they get away with this without censure but many of the tabloid readers bought into this. It’s in the papers it must be true.

I think many of the tabloid hacks hated him for two reasons.

Firstly, a fair percentage of them will be Huns and therefore anyone trying to bring Celtic up – and it became clear pretty quickly that the six years we spent wallowing in the doldrums under an incompetent board of directors were rapidly coming to an end and a serious challenge to Rangers was about to be launched – must be criticised no matter what they do.
Secondly, prior to McCann their life was so much easier – simply sit in the pub and phone up a former Celtic player, preferably from the Stein era and get some ‘Celtic in shocking state!’ type quote. Et voila! a back page splash. Phone it in to the sports desk, sit back and order another large one on the paper’s account.

McCann finished that. The Celtic crest split in two was consigned to the archive – at least for a while – and sports reporters had to leave the warmth of the snug bar, not to return until Kenny Dalglish’s disastrous press conferences in Baird’s some years later. They were certainly not pleased with that.

The most controversial decision McCann made was the appointment of Jock Brown as General Manager in 1997. The idea that the job of football manager had become too big for one man is not a new one. In fact it’s relatively common in Europe, but no one had tried it in Scotland and this particular choice – a known name, a football commentator and brother or the Scotland manager no less – guaranteed that the spotlight would glare on this set up from the word go. Jock Brown only lasted something like 16 months and in that time we won two trophies and signed more than ten players.

It was, in fact, the most successful time we had under the Bunnet. Obviously I’m not pinning the credit for all that on Brown, but he must have played some part, although on the debit side the manager who won us those trophies promptly walked out.

The other major factor was the elimination of further contract disputes. Prior to Jock Brown Celtic had all kinds of contract problems, from Paul Elliott’s house purchase to Di Canio’s tax allergy, it took an experienced lawyer to sort them out. Since Jock Brown drew up the players’ contracts we didn’t have one dispute, and it was to do that kind of job that Brown was brought in.

However, many supporters simply didn’t trust Brown. They thought he was a Rangers man and that he would try and get his brother into the manager’s chair.

When a problem arose over bonus payments to the players for defeating the less than mighty St. Patrick’s Athletic many fans felt that the players were in the wrong, but they still had a pop at Jock Brown for the fact that the situation even existed. He was another one who could do no right.
Brown resigned when it became apparent that his continual presence at Celtic Park was becoming a serious distraction.

That was possibly Fergus’s biggest defeat, his choice of Chief Executive removed by fan power, but I imagine he would have accepted it on the grounds that the same power propelled him in to Celtic Park.

Characters like McCann are very often only appreciated after they go. While some in the crowd booed him as he unfurled the league flag in 1998 he came second only to the Lisbon Lions in the vote for what to call the East Stand.

But that vote was taken months after he had gone. Now that he was no longer there fans previously ill-disposed towards him had taken stock of what he had actually done for the club and realised that Fergus McCann was something of a genius.

January 1996 marked the 25th anniversary of the Ibrox disaster when 66 people lost their lives. The Ne’erday fixture was at Celtic Park and there was to be a minute of silence as a mark of respect for the dead. When Fergus and David Murray appeared on the pitch to make a short speech prior to the silence there was a fair amount of catcalling. Fergus’s response to this was to bark ‘Silence!’ into the microphone in the manner of a stern schoolteacher.

The funny thing was the noise did actually stop!

Later that year McCann again raised some hackles when he issued a statement asking that supporters refrain from singing some of the more political songs. The response of some fans was to go out of their way to sing those songs as an act of defiance.

So where does he fit in the history of the club?

I think we have to separate the football side of things from the organisation. I don’t think McCann himself would want to stand comparison to Stein or Maley. But on the organisational side of things I would say that he is a comfortable third; Brother Walfrid thought the whole thing up, John Glass made it reality and Fergus McCann rebuilt the club.

Fergus will be back at Celtic Park to unfurl another league flag in August.

This time, all he will hear will be cheering fans.

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