20 years ago, a small quietly spoken giant of a man came to Glasgow.
If you passed him in the street, you’d think he was just another man of a certain age walking through the streets of Glasgow in his coat and bunnet ..
At the time, my football team Glasgow Celtic Football Club were in dire straits, trapped in a financial war to buy players that they could barely afford with bank debts piling up and no access to the riches of Champions League football or Sky tv contracts.
On the other side of the city, Glasgow Rangers were on their 5th league title in a row. Funded by the entrepreneur David Murray and his then booming company Murray International Metals.
Celtic had no sugar-daddy to fund the expensive player contracts and could only watch as Rangers brought in a raft of expensive English and European Players, global names and superstars in their own right, Paul Gascoigne, Brian Laudraup, Frank de Boer even the England team captain Terry Butcher and first team goalkeeper Chris Woods.
Of course what we didn’t know then was that Murray was paying the players through illegal methods and had side contracts with the players. Rangers have already been fined for these illegal payments and there are ongoing legal disputes between the former club and HMRC.
But in this cold war, Celtic were losing and the bank were about to pull the plug on the club, essentially it was hours away from Bankruptcy. The bank were going to pull the plug for a relatively insignificant and serviceable debt of 5 million pounds which seems trivial when compared with the money in football or being spent on the other side of the city.
But regardless, we were in trouble.
At the time, there was dissent between the fans and the members of the board, largely the Kelly family, who were perceived as using the club for their own benefits and not funding the management to buy players.
There were various fans groups, calling for change, a figure head of this was Brian Dempsey. A mouth piece for the rebels, but time would tell that he was all talk and very little substance as when the bank called in their loan, he was incapable of putting his money where his mouth was.
At the 11th hour, two men came to Celtics aid, Fergus McCann the figure head and leader of the revolution and the understated and relatively unknown John O’Neil.
To save the club being closed, John went into the bank and transferred 1.5 million of his own money to save the club being closed down immediately. This allowed time for Fergus to arrive from Canada and get a business plan in place to pay the bank and oust the Kelly regime.
I remember watching tv that night, as the crowds gathered outside Celtic Park, Brian Dempsey appeared from the doors of Celtic Park with this quiet little man, Dempsey holding his hands up and shouting that the club had been saved, the rebels had won.
Fergus, sharp, quiet, understated, was not fooled by Dempsey’s theatrics and soon Dempsey disappeared.
The club were saved and the next few months were about putting a plan in place to build a stadium fitting the fan base that Fergus knew were largely untapped. It was about providing a training academy to implement training and sports therapy away from the stadium and to develop the youth teams.
It was also about moving ownership of the club from a few people to the fan-base in general.
Back then, I worked in heavy engineering, were the staff were largely Rangers fans and made no secret of their allegiances and contempt for anything to do with Celtic or by their own reference Catholicism .. Sadly that is how these people think and although I’m friendly with many Rangers fans, that attitude still largely prevails in this small part of the world.
They laughed at Fergus and his bunnet, fuelled by a mainstream media who mocked his plans.
I remember sitting there listening as they laughed telling us how the share issue would fail, how no fans would buy into his vision with their own hard-earned cash.
But they did, in their thousands, we queued down the street, around the block, thousands of us, business men, young people, old people, wee woman with their bags full of coins all buying their shares to play a part in something which is bigger than themselves.
Because that’s what Celtic is, it is not a football team, it’s a people, a movement, the football is only a representation, a mechanism for grouping people together and making them feel part of something bigger than themselves.
Fergus was true to his promises and stuck with his 5 year plan, building a 65,000 seat stadium, the largest in the UK at the time, funding the training academy and putting a team on the pitch which with time wrestle the league from the dominance of Rangers.
Fergus wasn’t perfect, he counted the pennies, every pound was a prisoner and his personality was often perceived as prickly, rubbing people up the wrong way, but for all he did I am eternally grateful.
When Fergus left, after the team had won the league for the first time in 10 years, The club were strong both on the field and in business terms. His shares sold at a premium passing the torch to Dermot Desmond who has been a largely anonymous major shareholder allowing the club to function within its means, it will survive regardless of whoever is at its head.
Tomorrow, 20 years later, Fergus McCann returns to Celtic Park to raise the flag for winning the league title for season 2013-4
Me, mine and my Celtic family will be there to show our appreciation..
Welcome home Fergus!!