The man who saved Celtic: New BBC documentary to track 90s takeover of Celtic

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The new two-part documentary will delve deep into Celtic FC in the 90s - the story of how a Glasgow football club nearly died, but was saved from certain doom by fans and a certain Canadian financier, Fergus McCann

A new two-part documentary short will tell the story of how Canadian businessman Fergus McCann saved Celtic FC from going out of business ahead of the takeovers 30th anniversary next year.

The first part, which features in this Friday’s episode of BBC Scotland’s A View From The Terrace, will explore the events that led to McCann’s famous 1994 takeover.

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The episode, available on iPlayer from Friday evening, features an exclusive interview with David Low, an investment analyst who came up with the idea of trying to ‘buy out’ the Celtic board of the early 1990s.

Low, who personally approached and pitched the idea to McCann, acted as a broker to get the deal done and was in the room as the 24-hour deadline ticked down. He remains friends with Fergus McCann to this day.

The founder of the Celts For Change movement Matt McGlone is also interviewed in a reexamination of the club’s emergence from arguably the darkest period in its history.

Describing the time, McGlone, who founded Celts For Change as the club was facing bankruptcy, said: “I put an advert in the newspaper and I said ‘if you care about the welfare of your club, turn up at the City Halls tomorrow night’, and that was Celts For Change.

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“We knew that to save the club things had to change. We didn’t have any money, all we could use was the tool of being fans.

“But the fans had the spirit, the tenacity, the drive, the will to win and to save the club from going under.”

While the board fell into complacency around the impending bankruptcy - Celtic fans did everything they could to find a solutionWhile the board fell into complacency around the impending bankruptcy - Celtic fans did everything they could to find a solution
While the board fell into complacency around the impending bankruptcy - Celtic fans did everything they could to find a solution | Contributed

Discussing his role in the deal, Low, told the documentary: “I had two passions in life – one was music, one was Celtic.

“In the 1980s money had come into the game for the first time. Celtic didn’t have that.

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“I was an investment manager, and my job was to ascertain what companies were good to invest in. Fergus McCann was described to me as a slightly eccentric, very determined guy – a Celtic fan from Canada – and I should go and meet him.

“The only person I met in this whole time that had a plan was Fergus McCann, and the fans pledged support for this plan.”

Describing the nail-biting negotiation that he brokered with McCann, Low said: “It’s a game of poker going on here. They know that the game is up - it’s just a matter of money now. You agree on a price and the deal is done.

“I always remember on the way out Fergus said to Michael Kelly: ‘Goodbye Mr. Kelly, I hope I never meet you again.’”

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In the late 1980s, the football world was changing – the game was becoming big business, on and off the field, with Sky Sports launching in 1989 and the Champions League launching in 1992.

As Rangers thrived under high-profile manager Graeme Souness and chairman David Murray, becoming one of the biggest and wealthiest clubs in the UK, things were moving in the opposite direction for cross-city rivals Celtic.

A lack of investment in a dilapidated stadium and failing squad sat in stark contrast to the Ibrox outfit – leading to the infamous term ‘biscuit tin board’ being coined.

Celtic had been privately owned by the Kelly and White families for almost a century, prompting fans to argue the ownership structure was holding the club back. This was exacerbated by failed managerial appointments such as trophyless former Republic of Ireland star Liam Brady which had pushed the Parkhead club to the limit of its £5m overdraft.

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Aware something needed to change, the board proposed a new stadium on the outskirts of Glasgow, in Robroyston or Cambuslang. The proposed move came within a whisker of happening, threatening to rip Celtic out of its East End home and alter the course of the club’s history forever.

The early 1990s saw disgruntled Celtic fans organising into what would become one of the country’s earliest and biggest grassroots fan-protest groups: first Save Our Celts, then later Celts For Change. The groups recruited huge numbers of fans into their ranks, designed to oust the old board and allow Celtic to move forward into the modern football age.

Rallies were held and fans arranged boycotts of home matches. Brian Dempsey, who had been deposed from the Celtic board, became the figurehead of the campaign.

‘Back the Team, Sack the Board’ was the rallying cry. The most famous boycott came on March 2 1994 when fewer than 9,000 Celtic fans attended the home match v Kilmarnock – unheard of for a club of the 1967 European Cup winner’s stature.

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This number was significant as it was below the estimated break-even threshold, for a club that could ill-afford to lose any more money.

By the end of March 1994, the Bank of Scotland had had enough. Celtic were given just 24 hours to find the finances to continue or be shut down for good.

Enter Fergus McCann, a ex-pat living in Canada. McCann had previously tried to invest in Celtic but had received little interest from the board.

Desperate, the board reached out to him again. McCann arrived ‘wearing a bunnet’ in a flurry of publicity at Glasgow airport.

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Fighting his way through the scrum of media and fans, he made his way to Celtic Park where he and his consortium holed up with the club’s board in an attempt to thrash out a deal.

As the clock ticked into the early hours and fans waited on tenterhooks outside the ground for any news, the future of Celtic hung in the balance.

Fergus McCann is widely credited with saving Celtic from certain doom in the 90’sFergus McCann is widely credited with saving Celtic from certain doom in the 90’s
Fergus McCann is widely credited with saving Celtic from certain doom in the 90’s | Contributed

Jordan Laird, Executive Producer of A View From the Terrace and co-founder of Studio Something, said: “It’s always fascinating to look back at the history of football clubs and find the stories that shaped them, especially when fans are at the heart of the future of their club, we thought it was an incredible story of how basically a group of devoted fans refused to let their club go under.”

“Speaking to Matt McGlone really brought the power of fans to the forefront of our minds – it was their pressure that really turned the club around and it’s almost unthinkable what might have been of them when you look at the size of them now, it shows the impact fans can have, whatever a club’s size.

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“As fans we should always remember that our clubs are ours, and we can do what it takes to make sure they survive.”

A View From The Terrace will run on Friday nights on the BBC Scotland channel for 20 weeks, and onBBC iPlayer.

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