Fergus the Celtic seer

THE modern-day Celtic will be 10 years old on Thursday. Yet, the father of it probably won’t even think of sending a card. A decade elapsing since the March 4, 1994 takeover of the club by Fergus McCann from the Kelly-White dynasty would seem an obvious moment to reflect on the fantastic achievements of the most unfairly maligned figure in the entire history of the Scottish game.

But this is something that the 62-year-old, who, following a 9m investment to ward off bankruptcy that March day, conceived and reared the Celtic we now know, seems prepared to leave to others. Supposedly, McCann is more interested in building up his company that hires "office" limousines to businessmen from his Boston base than discussing his impact on Celtic. Which is entirely typical of just about the least egotistical, and most inscrutable, man I have ever met, an eccentric whom I must have spent more time with than any other Scottish journalist.

Carnaptious and caustic, his intransigence could make him, by turn, infuriating and impossible to work with. Or rather work for. It remains pathetic, though, that the personality foibles of a man who looked like a cross between an insurance salesman and Mr Magoo too often blinded too many to the fact that McCann didn’t so much possess foresight as second sight when it came to how a football club should operate.

As the game finds itself on its financial uppers because of dream-chasing, over reaching, it is now fashionable among sports writers, club chairmen and fans to acclaim McCann as a visionary of the iconoclastic variety for railing against "unsustainable" spending in 1994. These folk will sagely note how, in eschewing emotion in the fiscal governance of a club, and avoiding budgeting on the basis of "jam tomorrow" (one of his favourite phrases), McCann’s ways were spot on. Many, however, are the selfsame people who reviled and ridiculed the Celtic chief executive throughout his five years.

Yet McCann never gloated at being proved more right than wrong; even when this had been in the face of outrageous hostility from all quarters. Looking back, it amazes me how he could gaze into his crystal ball and see a future for Celtic that practically everyone else felt was fanciful. Including me, then Celtic View editor.

Early in his tenure, I thought I would make him see sense over building a 60,000-seater stadium. I produced figures demonstrating that Celtic’s average attendance had not topped 35,000 for the previous six years. A capacity of approaching this could be achieved by bolting seats on to the old Celtic Park slopes and would be a better plan, I told him. "We will fill 60,000," he would growl at me.

And he was right of course. Just as was the case when he dismissed my suggestion that the share issue should be delayed. Coming six weeks after Celtic’s Coca-Cola Cup defeat against Raith Rovers in November 1994, it was bound to be a disaster, I maintained. He retorted that his extensive market research told him otherwise. In the event, it was actually over-subscribed through raising 14m. Indeed, the night that word of this filtered through to Celtic Park was the only occasion I ever saw McCann betray a sense of vindication. "The dog barks but the caravan moves on," he said of the countless doubters.

Within McCann’s first 14 months in charge, six trophyless years had been ended with a Scottish Cup win, Celtic Park was almost three-quarters rebuilt and he had been the catalyst for 23 million being invested in a club previously teetering because of a 5 million overdraft. Everything that has subsequently gone right for the east end of Glasgow club can be traced back to the owner’s boldness over those months. Without the initial cash infusion and the 20 million-plus guaranteed each campaign from increasing Celtic’s season ticket base seven-fold to make the club among the top six supported teams in Europe, there would have been no Martin O’Neill, no three titles in four years and no UEFA Cup final. "The stadium is terrific and if that is Fergus’s legacy, he is worth his weight in gold," said the Irishman the other day.

O’Neill, who has never met McCann, admits he might have had the odd disagreement with an abrasive character who tends to be judged by his mien rather than his message. McCann’s less than personable nature perhaps contributed to his blind spot in selecting Celtic managers: Tommy Burns, Wim Jansen and Jo Venglos never running the football affairs to his satisfaction.

McCann really could be a regal member of the awkward squad, although sometimes in a charming way. For the man who sent out an edict to end his magazine journalists having free toast and soup in the players lounge - a 50p price tag was slapped on the latter - was the same one who would not play the supporter card in the face of accusations that he was concerned only with the "bottom line".

I begged him to do this in the wake of a battering from Celtic fans following the Coca-Cola Cup final, principally because his credentials were impeccable. A committee member of the Croy Celtic Supporters Club before emigrating to Canada in 1963, his pursuit of prudence was forever misconstrued as a lack of passion. They think you don’t care, I petitioned. "Care? I was sweating bullets during that final," he squealed.

Populism was anathema to him; doing what he thought to be right was his over-riding concern. "Principles? Sorry governor, I can’t afford them," would be the line he would mockingly borrow from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion to justify fighting any battle he thought there was good reason to. By crikey, there was a never-ending supply of these: it was nearly impossible to cross McCann’s path without having cross words with him.

Mischievously, I once disregarded my budget agreements that stated only one member of staff travelled abroad with the team, booking both a journalist and a photographer on a pre-season trip to beef up magazine coverage. The day before he phoned me and said to forget using one of the flight tickets. But I can’t get it refunded now, I petitioned. "Tough," he spat, rendering the 500 ticket useless to make a point.

It was McCann’s belief that principles must always be adhered to which resulted in his bringing down SFA secretary Jim Farry, whom he nailed on a technicality relating to the late registration of Jorge Cadete. The Portuguese striker, of course, was central to another bout of argy-bargy. He, along with fellow forwards Pierre van Hooijdonk and Paolo di Canio, tried to exhort salary increases by fabricating verbal agreements they alleged to have had with McCann.

The Celtic supporters, always suspicious if not downright disbelieving of the motives of an owner who made plain he was only going to be around for the duration of a five-year plan, proved gullible in taking the side of the trio. Though McCann was verbally abused, manhandled and spat on for not acceding to the demands of a group he dubbed The Three Amigos - in reference to their bandito morals - he never gave in and the trio were allowed to prove quarrelsome elsewhere.

McCann certainly understood the value of the bricks and mortar of his precious stadium more than the market worth of those recruited to perform in it. It may be, therefore, that while the outstandingly successful era Celtic are currently enjoying could not have happened without him, with salary levels rocketing since his departure it might not have been possible were he to have remained instead of selling his shares for a 20m profit, a sum that only came his way because he made good on all his promises.

Shortly before upping sticks, McCann admitted that he would need "a day off" to count all the mistakes he made during his Celtic stewardship. Perhaps where he wasn’t astute was in believing that he could divest his shares in such a way as to prevent any individual having control of the club; Dermot Desmond now effectively calls the shots with a 29.4 % stake.

McCann might consider the Irishman welcome to it. For hard to banish from the mind is McCann being booed by a sizeable contingent of his own supporters while, in August 1998, helping unfurl Celtic’s first title flag for a decade. The shameful incident was precipitated by the fall-out that brought the curious Jansen’s departure only days after he had delivered the title in his first season. No wonder McCann chooses not to look back now. Never has a prophet been so unappreciated in his own land.