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The Father Of The Modern Celtic
In March 1994, expatriate businessman and Celtic supporter Fergus McCann took control of a financially-strained club, in the process ousting a board of directors which included members with long family connections with Celtic.

In March 1994, expatriate businessman and Celtic supporter Fergus McCann took control of a financially-strained club, in the process ousting a board of directors which included members with long family connections with Celtic. Shortly afterwards, Lou Macari was replaced as team manager by another ex-Celt Tommy Burns.

Later that same year, in accordance with Fergus McCann's Five-Year Plan, the club was reconstituted as a plc, a development quickly followed by the most successful share-issue in the history of British football with 10,000 taking up the offer of investing a minimum of £620, thus contributing £14 million towards the re-financing of the club. In April 1999, Fergus McCann departed at the completion of his five-year stint. Allan MacDonald, a former British Aerospace managing director, succeeded him as chief executive.

Only Celtic could ever have a saviour like Fergus McCann. A unique character if ever there was one, and a stand-out with his "bunnet" (cloth cap) in an increasingly Hugo Boss and Armani clad business world. He was both a moderniser yet a throwback to an earlier era of almost Scottish Presbyterian thrift (despite being devoutly Roman Catholic). Obsessive about generating money but not about necessarily spending it. Not someone that will be easy to convey in what he was truly like and this article likely only scratches the surface. In many ways that's how he would prefer it.

In our history, our great men have included pillars of the community such as Brother Walfrid, but in many way Fergus was and wasn't the antithesis of Brother Walfrid. Both had ideas and visions of how they wanted Celtic to be, both were strong single minded men and both had a strong religious sense. However, Brother Walfrid was guided by his sense of duty for the church and religion, Fergus by financial and business rationale. What couldn't be argued with was their commitment to the club.

In his youth, Fergus McCann was a regular Celtic supporter going to matches on the local supporters' bus before emigrating to Canada. There he settled down and made his riches in the lucrative golfing holiday market. This made him very comfortable, although not as wealthy as Ranger's chairman David Murray, but proved that he was an astute businessman nevertheless. Celtic was an opportunity for Fergus, so his old home of Scotland was where his next venture lay.

As a character he could be quite awkward. Brian Dempsey (ex-board member) recalls a meetingand seeing him doing stretching exercises on the floor in his office. A bit humorous. Many people just found him too obtuse and difficult to communicate with. Others liked his no nonsense attitude, and in any case he was here to do a job in five years (his timeframe) and nothing was to stop him.

His first approach to Celtic on a business basis was in the early 1990s. The government endorsed 'Taylor Report' enforced a requirement for all top division stadia to be all seated from 1994 onwards. For Celtic this was a major jolt, as Parkhead had probably one of the biggest terracing around, and so redevelopment and investment was required fast.

Fergus approached Celtic with an investment proposition of funding to rebuild the stadium in return for a 3-year right to marketing season-tickets, but he was quickly rebuffed. This was a separate proposal from the 'Rebel' group of investors at the time (i.e. Brian Dempsey et al).

This didn't put Fergus off, and with renewed vigour he later took up the mantle again with the "Rebel" shareholders for control of Celtic, succeeding after a torrid time saw him ultimately take control of the club with a consortium in 1994 in what was a very bitter battle. At one point during the takeover battle, Fergus was not even allowed into Parkhead and had to do a radio interview in a trailer outside the ground.

On the day of the eventual takeover, he stated that the old board would not get "one thin dime" but for commercial reasons the former share holders had to be paid off. Ex-director Michael Kelly departed as bitter as can be and the 'Sack the Board' days were now over.

As a measure of Fergus' commitment, he put in £9.4m of his money to help rebuild the club and that was the beginning of the new phase for Celtic.

Things were never going to be easy and change themselves overnight. Many were too rose-tinted after the takeover, but not Fergus who was always a realist and kept his feet on the ground. That in itself was the basic foundation that underpinned his managerial style.

His promise was simple: to rebuild the stadium, get the club back on its feet and win the league, and then to be judged in five years.

So what did he do? Well, it would take a huge book in itself to be able to go through all of his achievements and below is a listing of some of the major achievements:

The share issue, and the successful switch from a private limited company to a PLC
The rebuilding of the stadium
The Season Tickets sales success
Raising attendance to the highest in Scotland (and one of the highest in the UK & Europe)
Expansion of the commercial base of the Club
The "Bhoys Against Bigotry" campaign
Raising revenue generation to be highest in Scotland (and again one of the highest in the UK & Europe)
Planning for the youth academy (donating £1.5m)
Taking on the SFA and UEFA publicly in the Courts to get fair treatment.
Revitalised Celtic's charitable traditions, establishing a Charity Foundation which has delivered financial assistance to causes close to the club's heart.

Even if Fergus had only achieved only one of the above successes he'd have been lauded for it, but under his management the list of achievements above is a milestone. For fans brought up post-1994, it is hard for them to fully fathom the poor state that the club was in. The transformation under Fergus has left a legacy that has set a path for the club that should not be diverted from.

In the early days, Fergus had sat himself in the hot seat realising that the whole place needed more than just a dust down. Following a clear-out of the deadwood (i.e. the remaining board members from the old regime and later the manager Lou Macari), the priority was to get the financial base of the club fixed up and then to get a new manager (Tommy Burns) which he did in relatively heated circumstances with Kilmarnock.

Next, the subsequent plans for redevelopment of the club hinged on the success of the share issue, for which he was much maligned and led to a split from shareholder Brian Dempsey who was its most vociferous public opponent. It didn't matter. While others pontificated, Fergus just got on with the job, and to his delight the share issue was a huge success, possibly the most successful ever for a football club with the fans pouring in money for investing to re-build the club.

With the finances in place, the next step was the rebuilding of the stadium. Having moved to Hampden temporarily, planning for the stadium itself was contentious. Ideas about moving away from Parkhead were a non-starter due to time constraints imposed by the "Taylor Report" amongst other aspects. Another point was that with crowds at around 30-40k at average, plans to create a 60k seater stadium were ridiculed by many. Fergus was repeatedly advised against such a grand plan, critics fearing large swathes of empty seats if it were built. Fergus simply replied to the critics "They'll come!". Next came the criticisms over season tickets, with former chairman Jack McGinn mocking the idea stating that season tickets were more trouble than their worth.

Regardless, Fergus persevered, and the successful completion of the stadium and the full-house season ticket sales are testament to his vision and business acumen. His critics were curiously silent after this. Jack McGinn in particular looked as out of touch as he ever was. The stadium has been regularly rated as one of the best in the world for atmosphere, and we have Fergus to thank in large part for this.

An expansion and modernisation of the commercial structure of the club's merchandise also paid dividends. Beforehand, Celtic's merchandising was really a couple of diddy club shops with next to nothing in them (e.g. key chains and rain macs etc). The administration under Fergus McCann really did make a difference and seemed to startle many with the commercial revolution the club was undergoing.

Tackling the SFA
Probably McCann's crowning glory was taking on and defeating the incompetent incumbents of the SFA. Delays led to late registration of new signing Jorge Cadete, and so McCann took the SFA to court over this.

Derided for this action by various sections of the media, they were left with egg on their face as McCann won the case leading to the resignation of the then Chief Executive Jim Farry in disgrace.

McCann basically was dragging the SFA into the modern age and giving them a public kicking along the way, and showing that Celtic were not going to accept amateurish second class treatment. It was for the time a magnificent victory and achievement, a landmark case.

Unlike players or managers on the pitch, a great Chief Executive's role can never be fully assessed by 90 minute results. The stadium, the financial planning, the business plan and the club's standing are all investments that can only be properly assessed years later in retrospect.

Other board members and investors have been made to look foolish for their criticisms of the man for what he did (especially Brian Dempsey and Jack McGinn). Many of them had only a bark but no bite, and Fergus at least put his money where his mouth is. The club was now taken seriously, and was no more an easy target for the press, agents or uptight players. Celtic are now a very seriously professional club and business, run properly rather than for the aggrandisement of select families.

For Scottish football, the legacy is a strong forthright egalitarian club that represents all that is best in Scotland competing in Europe, something that Scottish football had lacked since the early 80s. Fergus was also prescient in his willingness to openly criticise the irresponsible profligacy of much of Scottish football, something that in the next decade after his departure has clearly been shown by Rangers financial demise in particular. Eschewing modern financial gambling in favour of prudence and planning, his old fashioned outlook on cash management is something that much of football has to revisit and put into practise for their own sake as much as anything else.

It was disappointing that Fergus did not come to Seville for the UEFA Cup final in 2003, but after some of the unwarranted personal criticisms that he had to suffer from various sections in Scotland (both within and outwith Celtic FC circles) you can't blame him much. He made his money but he's a sharp man and he would likely have been able to make the money somewhere else with less headache. He came, he saw and, in his own way, he conquered all barriers in front of him. An unlikely but wonderful saviour.

However, he did not forget the club and made appearances at Celtic events, including when Celtic went to the US for summer tours. It was great to see Fergus McCann alongside the Celtic players.

At time of writing he is managing a business oriented coach and bus service in the US. Only the best and highest standards for our Fergus.

In August 2014, he returned to Celtic Park and raised the league winners flag, to mark the start of the twentieth anniversary season since the takeover in 1994, and was very warmly received. A great tribute to a man we owe so much to.

Fergus McCann is a legendary figure for the club and we can never thank him enough for what he helped to build.

Posted by voc1967 on Wednesday 07 August 2019 - 11:47:22 | Comments (0)  |  printer friendly
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