A curious thing will take place at Celtic Park this coming Saturday. Although it is Flag Day and the formal celebration of the club’s third Championship in succession, the flag itself won’t be the centre of attention. Instead Fergus McCann, former club owner and Chairman, will be the focal point of the celebrations following his long-awaited return from abroad to what will be, essentially, a public act of contrition played out in Paradise.
It was sixteen years ago, on 1st August 1998, when McCann walked out pitch-side at a sun-kissed Celtic Park, in the all-seater stadium he was largely credited with creating, to help captain Tom Boyd and a supporter unveil Celtic’s first League flag in ten long, dark, trouble-strewn years. What should have been a defining moment in the club’s history proved to be just that – but for all the wrong reasons. The Scotsman’s match report described the events that day:
The script had seemed perfect. A gloriously sunny day, 59,000 adoring fans filling the magnificent new stadium, and a suspect Dunfermline side unlikely to spoil the party.
Then step forward the man who started the Celtic revolution when he ousted the old board, and the mood darkened.
Fergus McCann’s attempt to address the crowd before kick-off saw him booed by a sizeable section of the Celtic support, but by no means the majority. A definite split in the camp became apparent when a burst of spontaneous cheering tried to drown out the dissenters.
1998 – Trouble in Paradise
The booing of Fergus McCann that day has become a notorious episode in the club’s recent history. Some fans felt this was an appalling lack of gratitude for the man and his five-year plan which had saved the club from bankruptcy, re-built Celtic Park into the biggest stadium in Scotland without leaving Glasgow’s East End and provided the foundations to stop Rangers from beating the historic 9-in-a- row record.
Yet in his short time at Celtic McCann had already proven a controversial figure in the eyes of many supporters. The principal cause of the booing was the departure of manager Wim Jansen the day after the League had been won which was attributed to a breakdown in his relationship with McCann and the unpopular General Manager, Jock Brown. (There was a popular rendition of the chant ‘Stand Up If You Hate Jock Brown’ in the aftermath of the flag unfurling). In addition there was concern at the low-key status of Jansen’s replacement, Dr Jozef Venglos, and the absence of big name signings in the close season – with discontent fuelled on the day by the well-trailed presence of Wim Jansen at the game as guest of the former McCann ally, Brian Dempsey.
Another issue which had been causing disquiet among the support at the time was the perceived mistreatment of Celtic’s Irish-based fans who unveiled a banner during the game that day alleging that they’d been labelled bigots by the McCann regime and were being brow-beaten amid fears of a deliberate campaign to water down Celtic’s Irish roots and supplant the club’s true identity with a more overtly Scottish accent, possibly introducing a thistle or tartan into the club badge.
Whatever the reasons there was no mistake that many Celtic supporters took the opportunity that day to put Fergus McCann in his place. The man himself denied that he was, unlike his wife, upset at the reception he received: “My wife, who only went to two games in five years, felt it. She was really quite upset by that. It didn’t bother me as much as you would think. I was not there to get thousands of people cheering or to get rounds of applause every time I showed up. The plan was to make this thing work.”
A few months later McCann’s five years at Celtic were up, as he had planned, and he sold his Celtic shareholding and left to start a new life with his young family abroad. He had spent £9.5 million purchasing the shares and sold them for a cool £40 million. Yet some of his detractors, including former director Michael Kelly, seized the opportunity of McCann being drowned out by the support that flag day to claim that his tenure had been a failure overall and that he hadn’t achieved his key objectives (despite the obvious evidence to the contrary).
For many, the flag day reception had left a sour taste in the mouth. The club had been saved from possible financial ruin, an impressive stadium built and ‘The Ten’ had been stopped. And we had Henrik Larsson in the Hoops. Yet resentment remained. McCann’s distant and off-hand manner had upset many who’d come into contact with him, as had his perceived treatment of the beloved Tommy Burns as well as Wim Jansen and various players (McCann himself had once said that “football is about players. That is why, in a public argument in the media between a shirt [jersey] and a suit, the shirt always wins.”)
Some fans felt he was simply a corporate penny-pincher who didn’t truly understand football, was more interested in converting supporters into customers – with the subsequent drop in atmosphere on match days – and too fond of legal action. He did not have his critics to seek in the Scottish football establishment or the media – as the headline below demonstrates – yet despite his frequent victories over enemies of Celtic (the public destruction of the SFA’s Jim Farry being especially memorable), many in the support remained wary of him and the achievements claimed for him.
Over time the reputation of Fergus McCann in the eyes of those supporters who were moved to jeer him that flag day has slowly improved. The most significant turning point was undoubtedly the slow, lingering death of Rangers FC and the associated public fall from grace of a man long feted in preference to McCann by the Scottish media, David Murray. Celtic supporters particularly enjoyed the bitter irony of Murray, who once sought to undermine McCann with the declaration that “For every £5 Celtic spend, we will spend £10”, being forced to sell his club to Craig Whyte for just one of those pounds.
The subsequent liquidation of Rangers FC and the loss of that club’s history was something that McCann, a life-long Celtic supporter, had refused to countenance back in 1994: “It would’ve cost less, and left the previous owners with nothing, to go into liquidation. But it would also be humiliating for Celtic. So we paid all the bills. Celtic means the same to me as it does to other fans. I identify with the club and wish to be proud of it.”
Twenty years on from the successful supporter-led campaign that cleared the way for McCann to remove Celtic’s disastrous dynasty of Kellys and Whites, the man known as ‘The Bunnet’ is credited with being the one of the principal architects behind Celtic’s current domination of Scottish football. The support hasn’t forgotten the controversies and disappointments of McCann’s five years in charge of the club but there is a new-found respect, still a little begrudged by some, for the man who declared in 1997 that “Being a Celtic supporter is not always easy, but it is always worthwhile.”
More than a few contrite fans will be atoning for what happened back in 1998 when they cheer on the former social convenor of the Croy Celtic Supporters Club at yet another flag unfurling in Paradise this weekend.
Earlier on Flag Day Saturday, Fergus McCann will attend a Celtic Graves Society commemoration of the legendary Celtic striker Jimmy Quinn at his resting place in Kilsyth Cemetery. Tributes will also be paid to the man known as ‘The Croy Express’ by Lisbon Lion Jim Craig and Celtic historians Terry Dick and David Potter. The commemoration starts at 9am. More information can be found at www.celticgraves.com.