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'Fergus was demanding, challenging but he was great . . . '

OVER the 17 months they worked together, there was a question Fergus McCann would occasionally toss up to Jock Brown.

Jock Brown with Fergus McCann at a press conference during the 1997/98 season. Picture: SNS
Jock Brown with Fergus McCann at a press conference during the 1997/98 season. Picture: SNS

Just why was it, McCann would ask his general manager, that Rangers got such great write-ups in the papers while it felt like Celtic got a kicking?

Brown had an answer. "I said 'well, one of the reasons is that David Murray has a briefing session every three months with five or six journalists and they're all petrified they won't be invited, so they won't write a bad word about him. We could do that too.' "

McCann looked at Brown and snorted a reply: "Under no circumstances will we do that . . . "

Murray's Rangers were champions four times during the five years that McCann spent in Scottish football, but who looks like the winner now? Twenty years ago, Murray was venerated and McCann was mocked.

Today the infamous line about Rangers spending a tenner for every Celtic fiver reads like a signature to reckless overspending. Back then it was gleefully lapped up and it struck at the heart of how the two men, and the way they ran their clubs, were perceived. It struck at the heart of Celtic's desperation over how to topple Murray's Ibrox regime. To much of the Scottish media, and plenty of the Celtic supporters too, McCann was seen as the odd-looking, awkward wee man grasping the biscuit tin.

Brown's role at Parkhead deteriorated into open hostility from supporters and the press, yet he has always regarded it as one of the most enriching periods of his long and varied career. Working for McCann made him a privileged witness to an extraordinary figure whose methods were spectacularly vindicated. "You had relentless suspicion at the start because of the way he looked," said Brown. "That's what it was. It would have been different if he'd turned up looking like David Murray, a handsome guy with the suit and all that, and not the small man with the moustache, the bunnet, and a funny accent.

"That was the initial, superficial denigration of him. He was never comfortable or terribly interested in the media. When you have no ego and are not trying to make a name for yourself or act out of self-aggrandisement, the media is of no great importance to you. And it wasn't for him."

McCann came to Celtic in 1994, Brown in 1997. A friend put Brown's name forward for the job and, over meetings with Celtic's headhunting agency and its board of directors, including McCann, his interest grew. As a prominent commentator for BBC Scotland he had met McCann once before, having interviewed him for a Celtic video on Tommy Burns. He had found McCann "difficult" but, as they discussed working together, he was quickly intrigued and impressed.

"I liked him when I met him, pretty much instantly. I thought there was a bit more about him than I'd expected. I'd read the papers too so I had the same image of this funny wee man. But when I met him I thought, 'oh, right . . . ' I clocked what he was doing. I thought this guy was talking sense.

"When we got to the point where it was a serious possibility that I would join him at Celtic, and we were actually talking about it, I remember asking him 'are you not troubled about thinking about a west of Scotland Protestant for this job? He replied 'are you?' I laughed and said 'well I suppose I am'. He couldn't care less. 'I don't know what you are and I'm not interested'.

"He was challenging and demanding, but great. You knew exactly where you stood. You argued like hell and a decision was reached. He said 'the last thing I want is a yes man, I want someone to argue with me, someone to fight me'. I had some real wing-dings with him. The great thing about them was that you categorically knew that if you were being utterly genuine and expressing your view or beliefs, and they were contrary to his, he would fight and argue with you, a decision would be made that was his call, and then it would be finished.

"The next thing, you went out for lunch. There was never a grudge or a carry-over. I sometimes winced when I saw how he spoke to other people. Principally the players. I tried like mad to stop him talking to the players because I'd seen him do it and I'd had my head in my hands. The players were a good bunch of guys. Maybe a part of the camaraderie was their hostility to Fergus! He didn't ingratiate himself with anybody. He didn't know how to, wasn't remotely interested, and had as little an ego as I can ever recall."

When Brown later wrote Celtic-minded, a book chronicling his 510 days at the club, one chapter was titled Working with Fergus. He remembers McCann being unhappy about the Celtic boardroom leaking like a sieve to the media, with private club issues constantly making it into the papers. "People would joke that the board were reading the [Daily] Record to see what was happening at Celtic and that was true. People were picking up papers to find out what was going on. Fergus had a problem with that. Big time.

"I told him stopping [Rangers winning] 10-in-a-row was crucial. At one point he said 'is that so important?' I said, 'you're the Celtic supporter, I'm the new boy, and I would kill to stop 10 in a row! I told him that to the masses who come to our games it was absolutely crucial."

Celtic's 1997/98 championship win, at the end of Brown's only full season at the club, put the handbrake on Rangers' run at nine. That triumph acted as a release valve yet Brown remained mired in problems, pressure and stress.

One day - "a bad day even for those times" - McCann unexpectedly approached him and suggested they go out for lunch. That was out of character and Brown suspected there was an ulterior motive. McCann told him to pick anywhere he knew and liked, so Brown drove them to a restaurant in Bothwell.

"I was waiting for the subject matter to come up . . . and there wasn't one. For three hours we just had a laugh. And he was so funny. Clearly he had formed the view that I needed - and he probably needed - an interlude, a breather.

"We discussed no business at all at that lunch and I've never laughed so much. He was really, really entertaining. He met his wife, Elspeth, during that period and he talked about the press chasing him about that. He was hilarious on that. I thought how perceptive he was: did he actually calculate it and say 'I'm going to take him out for lunch because he needs that'?"

Brown was an appalled witness to the booing McCann suffered from a sizeable section of the Celtic support when he unfurled the league championship flag on the opening day of the 1998/99 campaign. "He'd stopped 10 in a row, won the League Cup for the first time in 15 years, built a magnificent stadium, assembled a first-team squad with 16 current internationalists, and made a profit. They should have been cheering him from the rafters. Now we can see that episode was the making of him, because people realise how appalling that was."

Brown had a column in the Celtic View and used it to criticise the booing. He said that, in 2050, anyone looking back on Celtic's history would read of two figures eclipsing all others: Jock Stein and McCann. "I was slaughtered in the tabloids for that. But the 'in 2050' part was not reported; that bit was ditched. So there was a terrible reaction. I'm always intrigued when people talk about getting death threats. It seems to be the fashion now to talk about them. We didn't! I had Special Branch attention - it was incredible. In all the time I had known Fergus that [the booing] was the first time I saw him shaken. Part of it might have been the presence of his wife. Elspeth was about two along from me in the directors' box and was just incredulous, the colour drained from her face. Poor woman. It was outrageous that she had to listen to that."

The column entrenched the hostility towards Brown and, realising his position at Celtic had become untenable, he left in November 1998. McCann spoke warmly about him at the time and they remain friends. Brown has taken great pleasure in the eventual reappraisal and appreciation of McCann. "Fergus was an amazing guy. He just did what he thought was right and people could take it or leave it. If you're not worried about the reaction it makes you immensely strong. I remember that, at the end of a working day he always left, sharp. Six o'clock. Out the door."

McCann walked out for the last time in 1999. Sharp, job done, out the door. All these years later, the lovely write-ups are for him.

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