John Keane

Born: November 18, 1934

Died: June 16, 2024

John Keane, who has died aged 89, was a Mayo man of humble origins who built a successful business in Scotland and played a dramatic role when Celtic Football Club faced its darkest financial hour in 1994.

A native of Doohoma, County Mayo, his life was shaped by an intense work ethic and unswerving commitments to three staples of the Irish community: family, faith and football. As with many families in the north-west of Ireland, connections to Scotland in an age of migration were deep-rooted.

His role in Celtic’s survival owed nothing to personal ambition. A lifelong supporter, he became involved in various approaches to achieving a transition from the club’s long-established ownership model as a private company controlled by two families. On March 3rd, 1994, all of this came to a head.

The Bank of Scotland set a deadline of noon the following day for a guarantee of £1million to be in place “to support the bank’s overdraft”. This would be “superceded by a £5million cash collaterised Guarantee once Mr Fergus McCann has reached the UK and has had a chance to apprise himself of the situation, latest the middle of next week”.

Fergus McCannFergus McCann (Image: free)

Given the knowledge that McCann was on his way, the interim demand for a £1m guarantee stunned the Celtic board and reinforced the perception of individuals in the bank hierarchy who bore Celtic no goodwill. It resulted in a desperate phone call from Kevin Kelly, the chairman, to John Keane at his home in Edinburgh.

Keane’s response was straightforward. “Administration was unthinkable,” he recalled. “It would have been a slur on the name of the club.” He alerted McCann who boarded the first flight to Glasgow and, with even greater urgency, the Bank of Ireland manager John Brosnan, with instructions to inform the author of the ultimatum, Roland Mitchell, Bank of Scotland general manager in Glasgow, that John Keane would provide the guarantee.

In the event, Fergus McCann turned up at Mitchell’s office with 20 minutes to spare before the noon deadline but nobody knew if that was assured. John Keane’s son Mark says: “To claim that dad was the man who saved Celtic is not how he would want it portrayed. There were a number of people involved – but he did play a crucial role”.

John’s father had been born in Butte, Montana, a copper mining city largely inhabited by Irish immigrants. The family returned to Mayo with a little money and an entrepreneurial streak. John’s father, Jim, became an employer of labour from the villages around Doohoma to work on Scottish farms, mainly in Ayrshire and East Lothian.

He married Sarah Callaghan from Crown Street in Gorbals, who moved to Mayo but retained a close interest in her native city.

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One consequence was that the “Scottish papers” arrived in Doohoma, giving John an early grounding in Glasgow and Celtic. He left school at 15, spent a couple of years in London and then joined his father on seasonal expeditions to Scotland, living and working on the farms.

When his father died suddenly in 1955, John at the age of 21 became the “provider and father figure” to his seven siblings, his brother Seamus recalls. He made Edinburgh his home and the access he provided to a pool of labour from Ireland allied to his agricultural connections led to his business expanding into contracting and civil engineering, initially on farms.

This evolved by the late 1960s into the Keane Contracting Company with pipework and cable-laying as specialisms. A fleet of green and gold vehicles became familiar sights around the highways and by-ways of Scotland, bringing underground telephone lines, electric cabling and gas supplies to many corners of the country. John was a hands-on figure, racing from the Black Isle to the Borders to supervise work while rarely missing a Celtic game.

He was well known in Celtic circles and the director Jimmy Farrell was a friend who was conscious of the need for change. When financial pressures became more apparent in the late 1980s, John Keane was one of the obvious people to become involved. He was the first from outside board circles to buy Celtic shares when a member of the Kelly clan in America sold to him although the board declined to ratify the transaction.

In the shifting sands of alliances which ensued over a period of five years while the club’s future hung in the balance, John Keane’s only interest was in contributing to a solution that would ensure its future stability and success.

Celtic captain Paul McStayCeltic captain Paul McStay (Image: free)

Campaigns for change could not alone deliver it but as pressure from the Bank of Scotland intensified, the board needed a solution which would contribute an urgent injection of funds. When Fergus McCann appeared on the scene with a plan based on developing the club’s historic home and creating a public company, Keane warmly embraced that option.

A majority of the board initially resisted but the dénouement was signalled by Kevin Kelly’s phone call to John Keane. The final meeting of the “old board” took place the following day and a new Celtic era started to unfold. Keane continued to help underwrite the club’s financial position while uncertainty surrounded the outcome of the share issue to supporters. McCann described Keane as “the one man who always delivered what he promised”.

John became a director of the Celtic Football and Athletic Company Ltd which provided advice to the PLC board. In 2013, he was made its honorary chairman and also unfurled the League flag on the opening day of the season – an honour deeply appreciated by a dignified and humble man who never sought personal prominence.

In 1969, John married Kathleen (née Coyle) from a neighbouring village in Mayo. She survives him along with their son Mark, daughter in law, Karisma, and grand-children John-Henry, Norah and Fiadh.