• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

The saving of Celtic: 20 years on. Part III: Fergus McCann

The best answer is the shortest.

Delivering a redeveloped Celtic Park forms part of Fergus McCann's legacy. Picture: SNS
Delivering a redeveloped Celtic Park forms part of Fergus McCann's legacy. Picture: SNS

The most accurate riposte to enquiries about what Fergus McCann is like could be provided by his reply, below, to a question about his best achievement at Parkhead. "You mean at Celtic Park," was his response.

This is recognisably, authentic McCann even to this observer who has only spoken to the Celtic saviour on two occasions, both long after he had left Parkhead. I mean Celtic Park.

Twenty years on after the intervention of McCann to save Celtic from financial ruin - after a journey from Croy though Canada, from supporters' bus to boardroom - he agreed to answer questions from the Scottish press.

"You mean at Celtic Park" is the sentence that shows he has lost none of his taste for accuracy, his desire to put matters right and his bristling attitude that may not signal war but suggests he will not retreat from its threat.

McCann has become a fabled figure in that he is defined by a story. However, there is a human being within the legend and it is educational, even edifying, to find that those closest to him recall him not as a saint but as a singular character with flaws as well as undoubted strengths.

One of the themes of countless conversations with those who worked with him is McCann's preference for addressing business immediately without the need for pleasantries.

David Low, central to McCann's takeover of Celtic, recalls this best when he met the businessman in his Montreal home in 1994. Low recalls that the first words were: "OK, Mr Low. Who are you, why are you here and what do you want?"

This briskness, even brusqueness, caused some bruising. McCann fell out with many and seemed to sue more. However, his legacy has been a financial stability that still marks Celtic and a reputation that has changed from Scrooge to saviour. Of course, his perceived parsimony was never criticised by those who appreciated his long-term plan.

Another instructive point in the interview is McCann's refusal to criticise Rangers, even failing to mention them by name, yet surely he must feel a sense of vindication about the way in which Celtic were run in contrast to their rivals? He was, after all, decried as a dictator and a skinflint who was restricting the progress of the club.

He contents himself with the observation about the need to manage risk and the "temptation of expensive, short-term deals".

Perhaps what is most impressive about McCann is not the substance of the stadium sitting in the East End, not the bravery of setting up Bhoys Against Bigotry, not even the resilience in the face of his detractors. It is this: he may have been difficult to work with but, 20 years on, those who had to operate with him in close quarters over many years speak of him with not just respect but affection.

He is a businessman who certainly made money but he also made friends. His answers may be short, even clipped, but, in contrast, the loyalty of his colleagues speaks volumes.

Describe the chain of events which preceded March 4, 1994, when Celtic were eight minutes from the precipice?

Briefly, it had become clear to the Bank [of Scotland] that they had no chance of being paid by Celtic unless the club obtained new capital.

With the co-operation of David Smith[a businessman] they had pressured the board by demanding personal guarantees. Smith, friendly with the bank, and wanting to get "cash for the families" (which I would not promise) tried to set up a deal that would have them accept an offer from Gerald Weisfeld (a large customer of the bank) that would do this and take the bank off the hook, but provide no new investment in Celtic. This backfired when a majority of the board dismissed the company officers and rejected the deal.

The bank then increased the pressure by setting the deadline for foreclosure to seize the assets. All of this occurred in the few days before March 4.

Had the bank co-operated with me (I had earlier deposited £11m in that bank to show I had the capital) instead of David Smith - and instead pressured the board with my plan which was by far best for the club, but not the "custodians" - the crisis could have been avoided.

Twenty years on, how do you view the scottish football association in light of the Jorge Cadete affair [Jim Farry, chief executive of the SFA, was LATER found guilty of delaying the PORTUGUESE STRIKER'S registratIOn] or the hire of Hampden for a season?

I am not aware of how the SFA operate currently - it has been a long time. I would hope that the culture has changed from what I experienced, namely acting in ways that would weaken the Old Firm in the mistaken belief that their smaller member clubs would benefit. Such as the waste in funding Hampden Park, Glasgow's unnecessary "No.3 stadium", while blocking Football Trust funding for Celtic Park, or £300,000 in fines and costs on Celtic for engaging a manager who had made clear his wish to apply and had been making only £40,000 per year in the last year of his contract. [Most likely a reference to Tommy Burns who came from Kilmarnock to manage Celtic in 1994].

Is there anything you would, on reflection, have done differently at Celtic Park?

It's always easy to be clever, with hindsight. I made mistakes for sure, some of them people mistakes. But there's no point on dwelling on them now.

And what do you view as the best, most enduring thing you did at Parkhead?

You mean at Celtic Park? Aside from getting all the essential new capital in place, the best thing overall was getting the best people. I mean the quality and value of the board I had - and the club now have - the executive management and operating people. Of course getting the best players we could afford was critical - and that has been maintained, but the club also have 500 dedicated employees as well. Last but not least, raising an army of 50,000-plus season ticket holders, and now having 28,000 shareholders - these are the key people that make Celtic what it is.

Can you re-live the booing incident at the unfurling of the league flag in 1998 and do you know how differently you are viewed today by the mass of the support today?

Frankly, I think this was over-publicised. It was disappointing but did not bother me greatly. People pay their money and have the right to applaud or boo as they wish. Every supporter has an opinion - which makes the whole game what it is. The facts were that we had reclaimed the league title, we had completed the best possible stadium, we had 53,000 season ticket holders and made a record profit.

Did the financial trauma at Rangers in 2012 vindicate the way you ran Celtic and was it an inevitable consequence of the way Rangers were run?

Everybody wants to win all the time but not everybody can. Football clubs should be ambitious but have to manage risk. Many have not done this well and there is great temptation to do expensive, short-term deals. I worry about the effect of current owners who "do not care what it costs", such as at Chelsea and Man City, on the overall game.

Before the takeover, you offered Celtic's former board £6m on favourable terms to build two new stands. They turned you down? Was that their biggest mistake and was a hostile takeover the only way to enact change?

Looking back, I am glad they did not agree. Being an investor with no shares or authority, given what I was to learn about the mentality of that board, would have made for an unworkable relationship. And the task was soon shown to be a lot greater than just a construction and marketing job.

You plunged two-thirds of your personal wealth into Celtic. Did anyone try to warn you against taking such a risk?

Not that I recall. At the beginning, the hard part was to get partners to buy in and stay the course. I was very fortunate to secure the backing of John Keane, Albert Friedberg and Michael McDonald, which made a big difference, knowing I was not alone.

When you were planning to turn Celtic around as a club and a business, AND was being invited to play in England ever an ambition? Could it ever happen, and what would it do to Celtic as a club and a business?

The EPL now dwarfs Scottish football financially and makes Celtic's progress a daunting challenge. Nowadays, supporters want the best, and that is impossible in Scotland generally with too many small clubs. This is obvious.

It is a real achievement for Celtic to play in the Champions League group stage. In the last two years, they represented the smallest country. I would like to see the EPL expand and include Celtic. I think it could and should happen. It would triple the size of the club in financial terms, overnight.

You arrived a single man and left Glasgow with a wife and children? Was that more rewarding than anything you did for Celtic?

Absolutely, even though it wasn't part of the Celtic plan!

Contextual targeting label: 
Football

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

216934