David Low had more than a ringside seat for the battle for Celtic in 1994.
He was Fergus McCann's corner man when his strategy of usurping the incumbent board through receiving the proxy votes on shares was the principal weapon in bringing the fight for the very existence of Celtic to a dramatic conclusion. On the 20th anniversary of the McCann-led takeover, Low, a financial analyst still based in Glasgow, can look back on the events of 1994 with the wisdom of experience but his retellling of the key moments reveals how close Celtic came to going out of business and how McCann was bold, even reckless, as the crisis mounted. This is the inside story of how a club came back from the brink in the words of someone who was there at all the crucial moments.
The First Meeting with Fergus McCann
Loading article content
There was a meeting of a few Celtic fans who were worried about what was happening at Celtic.
This was in 1992. David Murray was borrowing more money, Rangers were having more success, Celtic did not have a proper stadium with the Taylor report kicking in and the board clearly did not have access to any money.
I met a few like-minded wealthy Celtic fans who shared the concerns I had. One of them suggested I meet this strange fellow called Fergus McCann who seemed determined to help Celtic.
I went over to see him in his apartment in Montreal in the winter of 1992. He invited me in and made me a cup of coffee. I remember this meeting clearly because the cup of coffee was brimming to the full and I had to concentrate on it not spilling on his table.
He said: "Ok, Mr Low. Who are you, why are you here and what do you want?"
I loved that directness. It wasn't said in a cold way but in a business-like, no bullshit manner. This saves time. Most of the business world is populated by timewasters. He wasn't one.
I liked him and what he stood for almost from that second. In the whole time I have known him - and I talked to him this week - he has not changed one iota. You always know where you are with Fergus whether you agree with him or not.
His determination was obvious. He explained he had been trying to help Celtic since 1988. The board didn't want to know.
I unveiled my plan as an investment analyst, having dissected the share register and the articles of association. It was to acquire shares quietly from disenfranchised, dislocated and disrespected shareholders. My proposal was to gain their support. We wanted to pick up enough shares or support to call a general meeting and replace the board in conjunction with a capital injection from Fergus and other wealthy fans.
Fergus asked lots of questions. I told him that the three families who owned Celtic did not get on and he should not look upon them as a group. About 40% of shares were held outside the board. When I visited shareholders you found they were unhappy. There was an issue over the registering of shares.
The board had a right of veto but I had a cunning plan. I told Fergus that if we got them to sign a stock transfer form we could have an irrevocable proxy for their votes.
The share register does not change but we control those shares and when we get control we will then register them .
He said: "This is a very good plan, Mr Low, and I wish you all the luck in the world but I cannot support you on that."
I said: "Why not?"
He replied: "All the money I have, Mr Low, is going in the club. I am not going to reward these guys for the state they have put the club in. If you succeed, I will be first in the queue for money for the club."
That was good enough for me. He was committing funds to the club. I left that meeting a very happy bunny. I felt I had an ally.
I was proved right. He always delivered on the button.
The Gathering of the Shares
We were always a loose coalition. Me, Fergus, Brian Dempsey, John Keane, Eddie Keane, Jack Flanagan, Michael McDonald. The only thing we had in common was our love of Celtic.
I went about acquiring shares and it was easier than I thought.
Shareholders kept saying "we are with you", from Canada to the north of Ireland. Within three months I had 40% of Celtic in this office and the board did not have not a Scooby.
But we needed 51%. We spoke to a shareholder who feigned support but promptly called the Whites or the Kellys. The cat was out the bag. But they did not know the extent of our endeavours. That was when we started hitting turbulence.
We were at war. We ended up fighting for two years.
Celtic are getting worse, Rangers are getting stronger and it is getting nearer nine titles. We called an egm in November 1993. Celtic needed money and we came up with a plan for a cash injection of £17.9m. The board rejected that. Everybody was depressed as the club was clearly heading for the buffers. The team was terrible and the fans are agitating. There was a feeling of 'let's pack our tents and go'.
I said: "What do you mean? This is the end of the board. They cannot reject such a capital injection. It is a matter of time before they collapse. The next call they will receive is form the bank saying: 'How could you do that?'"
They were into the Bank of Scotland for £5m. Within three months, the bank wanted its money back. It wanted the money or personal guarantees.
Eight Minutes from the End
It was eight minutes and I can say that with certainty. I was there. It was the end of February when the bank said to the board: "Give us our money back or give us personal guarantees from all of you."
These were not wealthy men.
Kevin Kelly and Jack McGinn came to see us in an office in Park Terrace and told us the bank wanted money. They said they had a meeting with Gerald Weisfeld who was going to pay off the overdraft but there was no plan for the future.
I told them not to go to the meeting with Weisfeld but to tell the bank that a solution could be found. The bank then basically said: "We want a million within 48 hours and another four million by the end of the week."
I phoned up Fergus and got him off the golf course in Phoenix, Arizona. I told him: "Your time has come. They want £1m."
He says "okay."
He authorises the £1m and books a flight to Glasgow. He arrives on the morning of the fourth of March.
We then had a meeting and then went to the bank. The deadline was 12 noon. We stayed until the money arrived as these were as the days before immediate transfers.
We picked up a banker's draft and briskly walked, not ran, up to the Bank of Scotland and gave them the draft.
The paperwork was signed, with me as a witness, and that is when the 11.52 comes in. I remember looking at my watch and noting the time.
Four days later, the other £4m was paid. That was all a reckless risk on the part of Fergus. It says Fergus is a blind, mad Celtic fan or he was confident in his business plan.
All he had achieved by then was to become Celtic's largest unsecure creditor. He was not on the board, he has no share. We all trail up to Celtic Park to get control of the club. We have to get Fergus on to the board.
I can only remember getting Fergus to change his mind twice. The first one was supporting my plan over shares and then other was giving the board members money.
He was against that but bowed to reality. We were in control. We then had to have a general meeting to convert his loans into equity and to register the shares and put in more money. Michael McDonald and Willie Haughey joined the board and we then had the big share issue in December '94.
At the end of season 1993/94, I remember sitting in an office in Parkhead thinking: 'What have we here, it is a bag of crap . . .'
Due diligence showed it was far worse than we thought. Everybody was owed money. It was a tough gig. Then there is the move to have the share issue on the AIM market that took from March to December.
When we announced it after being beaten by Raith Rovers in the league cup final no-one knew how successful it would be. But we seemed to have unleashed some sort of pent-up enthusiasm in the Celtic support. The genie was out the bottle. We had to have a second offer to meet the demand. It was the most successful football share offer ever, maybe still is.
We had the funding to build the stadium. This is the story of the business machinations. There is one to be told about the way the fans had a major part to play in the momentum that forced change.
They were the energy behind change.
Fergus the man
I genuinely think he is a top man because he tells the truth. He usually gets the big decisions right and pursues his objectives ruthlessly and efficiently. He is not a saint but he was very refreshing. It is unusual to meet someone like him in business.
He did three unusual things: First, he invested blind. Second, he put in such a significant proportion of his wealth, some say 80%. Third, he changed his mind over paying the board money to leave.
It is difficult to come to any other conclusion than he was a big Celtic fan. He is synonymous with good business practice but there was more than that. He did not screw anybody either. The fans bought the shares at the same price as Fergus. He was honest in all his dealings and that is unusual in business.
All those tough decisions that he and the board had to make have been proven to have been as sound as a pound. The pressure came from the world and his wife, some fans being manipulated by the mainstream media, some from the displaced and the disgruntled.
The press was getting worked. This was making his job very difficult. But he stuck to the tough decisions. And that was 100% the right thing to do. We had to spend money on a stadium so that impacted on paying for the squad. Looking back, we were right and David Murray was wrong.
That is why we are where we are and Rangers are where Rangers are.
Future for Celtic
I actually believe Celtic face a bigger crisis now than they did in the early nineties. The team I started to go to see in the 60s was then experiencing an upswing under Jock Stein. There were the two European Cup finals and the losing semi-finals too.
I see no prospect of Celtic of competing at that level. Celtic have to get out of Scotland. They are trying to run up a down escalator and that is extremely difficult.
UEFA is adamant that the rules stay whereby if you have a football association then you have to play in that country.