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Exclusive interview: Putting his own stamp on appeal to Celtic supporters

SIXTY years a supporter.

Neil Lennon introduced Fergus McCann to his players at Fenway Park. Picture: SNS
Neil Lennon introduced Fergus McCann to his players at Fenway Park. Picture: SNS

The intervention of Fergus McCann into the renewal of Celtic season tickets may be seen as surprising by many but not by the close cadre of those who know him well.

Politically aware and financially astute, the businessman knows his letter from America urging fans to renew their briefs leaves him open to criticism of desperation or arming old enemies with a new weapon.

He is profoundly unconcerned by this. This is Celtic. And this is personal.

McCann was well rewarded for his stay at Celtic Park and makes it clear in his letter to supporters that he can afford to renew his four tickets in the investors' club and understands completely if they can not afford to do something similar.

Yet his message is unmistakable: it is that being a supporter is different from being a fan.

"Two weeks ago I met in Boston with an attorney, an American, who was working for me on a business deal," says McCann in his letter to supporters. "When he mentioned that he was a Celtic supporter, I immediately asked him how he supported Celtic. 'Well', he replied, 'I try to get the games on TV, but they are usually not available on regular or cable channels'. So I asked why he did not subscribe to Celtic TV. At which point he admitted that he was only a fan."

This exchange is so McCann it should wear a flat-top bunnet and specs.

His appeal to Celtic fans is one of unity, pointing out that there are no "unimportant" games, that the stadium was built to accommodate 60,000 so that opposing teams would be intimidated and that the club's success against the top teams in Europe proved there was a Celtic Park factor.

The letter contains an appeal to reason and to the financial imperatives of having a secure season ticket stream. But it is also unashamedly emotional. This is a letter from one Celtic supporter to another, not from a millionaire to a putative punter.

McCann was always reluctant in his tenure at Celtic to brandish his credentials as a supporter, believing what he did as a businessman was more relevant to the club. But in the 20th anniversary of his saving the club from financial ruin, he reveals it is the 60th anniversary of his first Celtic match.

"I went to my first Celtic match with my father in 1954 when I was 13 years old. A league game against East Fife," he writes "Yes, a different time. A time when Celtic's fortunes continued at a low ebb. In fact, for the nine years that followed, before I went to Canada, there were many disappointments. I never saw a Scottish league championship won by Celtic until I returned on a visit in 1988.

"One game that stays in my mind was a league match at Kilmarnock on a wet Wednesday night in March of 1963. Before a sparse crowd, Celtic lost by 6-0. Yes, 6-0: a result unthinkable today.

"The mood in the Croy Celtic Supporters' Club bus returning home that night was not good. But I remember the talk about a player that had appeared in the Celtic team for the first time. He was a 5ft 4in tall, 18-year-old redhead named Jimmy Johnstone. He looked the part with lots of talent, but the view was that he did not have the size or strength to make the grade.

"How wrong we were. Now we gaze upon his statue. And just think what was accomplished in the decade that followed."

This powerful reminiscence is complemented by the observation: "Celtic is part of our identity, yours and mine. And fans, who just watch TV and only appear at the 'big' games do not really improve our prospects for success."

Speaking from his home in Massachusetts, McCann told Herald Sport he was convinced support from the stands did not only help financially but drove the players to success on the park.

He remembered two "away" trips when the Celtic support may have tipped the balance.

His first choice was May 3, 1986, when Celtic defeated St Mirren 5-0 at Love Street while Hearts were losing at Dundee, meaning the Parkhead side won the league in the most dramatic of circumstances. "The crowd made a difference that day. I wasn't there but I watched the television pictures and it was clear the supporters were going nuts and the players knew what was happening at Dens Park," he said.

McCann, though, was at Hampden Park on April 15, 1970, when a crowd of 136,505 watched Celtic defeat Leeds United 2-1 to go through to the European Cup final. Celtic lost an early goal to a magnificent Billy Bremner strike before John Hughes and Bobby Murdoch gave Celtic a 3-1 aggregate victory in a tumultuous atmosphere. "Leeds were the supposed favourites but the crowd made it hard for them," McCann said. "That was a huge victory and the crowd played its part."

He also has a deeply personal memory as a fan. It was July 21, 2010, and McCann had been away from Celtic for five years. Celtic were playing at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, against Sporting Lisbon.

"Neil Lennon dragged me me into the locker room and lined up the players and told them, 'This is the guy who made sure you had all these fancy cars and lucrative contracts'," says McCann with a chuckle. "They were all players I did not know but he was very supportive and I wish him all the best for his future."

The next big match for McCann will be in August when he unfurls the championship flag in Celtic's first home match of the season. He is looking forward to that honour, saying a small operation combined with a legal action he was pursuing prevented him from travelling to Glasgow in March to mark the 20th anniversary of the saving of Celtic.

"I don't expect to say an awful lot that day," he says of the flag ceremony. "Remember, I can't speak for the club but only as a supporter."

His message, though, has already been delivered in an extraordinary letter.

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