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The Rebels Have Won
Celtic TakeoverFew dates are as significant in Celtic history as March 4th 1994. That was the day when the battle to save Celtic was finally won. After a long and arduous fight it was Fergus McCann and his millions which would steal the headlines - the exiled local boy made good, heroically leading the cavalry over the hill to save the day.
But while McCann certainly deserves his share of the plaudits the momentum for change did not come from the world of finance or big business. It came from the terraces. While McCann and men like Brian Dempsey and David Low were the public faces of the Parkhead coup, it was the ordinary supporters who had opened the door for their takeover.
What these fans lacked in finances they made up for in passion and a love of the club. Their rallies, their demonstrations and even their boycotts would be every bit as important in the fight for Celtic as the millions of McCann.
That fateful day brought to an end a near century of control of the club by two families. By the early 1990s concerns about the Kelly and White dynasty, which had controlled the club for so long, had been growing. Since the failure to invest in the 1988 double winning side and the Mo Johnstone signing fiasco the support were becoming increasingly worried about the board’s ability to compete with a big-spending Rangers.
The lack of investment was obvious on and off the pitch and there existed a real fear the current custodians were incapable of adapting to the modern football environment. An historical policy of prudence had meant that the Bhoys had failed to fully capitalise on the glory days of the Stein-era. Now the club were being left behind by the aggressively ambitious Rangers. On the pitch, commercially and in terms of stadium facilities Celtic were an embarrassingly distant second to their rivals.
In May 1990 the club had brought onto the board Michael Kelly, from the dynastic Celtic family, and an ‘outsider’ in Brian Dempsey. The politician turned PR Guru and the successful property developer were hailed by supporters as bringing much needed marketing and financial expertise to the board. With the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report sounding the death knell for Celtic Park and its vast terraces, Dempsey, a Lanarkshire-born Celtic fanatic, was hoping to convince the board that the club should move to a purpose-built arena in Robroyston.
However relations between Brian Dempsey and Michael Kelly deteriorated. With various board members suspicious of Dempsey’s intentions surrounding Robroyston, Kelly and fellow director Chris White made their play to have the property developer removed from the Parkhead inner circle. They were successful and just five months after his appointment Dempsey was ousted. Little did they know at the time but the board had just drawn first blood in the civil war for the future of Celtic.
As the team stumbled from one drearily woeful season to another the frustration of the support turned increasingly to anger. The years of mismanagement had left many fans at breaking point and with the very future of the club at stake the decision was made to take on the board and end generations of Kelly/White rule.
It was not an easy decision for those supporters to make. They were only too aware of the club’s traditions and the fact the White’s and Kelly’s had links dating back to the very first Celtic side. Indeed these two families had played a significant part in establishing Celtic as a truly great name in football. But there was little point in having a proud history if you had no future.
Save Our Celts were the first supporters group to attempt to take on the board and they were followed by the Independent Celtic Supporters Association. But it wasn’t until the later emergence in 1993 of Celts For Change that fan power really began to change the course of Celtic history.
Celts For Change employed a policy of direct action to highlight the club's plight. Their numbers quickly swelled and demonstrations included a picket outside Celtic’s then bankers the Bank of Scotland.
A boycott of the Kilmarnock game on March 1st 1994 resulted in a pathetic attendance of around 8,300 – although the board insisted the crowd was in the region of 10,800. This grassroots campaign for change was supported by leafleting and a thriving fanzine scene but there did remain a small section of the support who were loyal to the board and who were initially dismayed at the tactics employed by Celts For Change and others.
The board had tried to play on this by deviously claiming ‘Celts For Change’ and other supporter led protests were little more than a vehicle for a bitter Brian Dempsey.
There was no doubt that Dempsey, along with David Low, were too pressing for change at Celtic Park. But their takeover campaign, despite its shared aims, was born and run independently from that of Celts For Change.
An increasingly divided board chad clung desperately on to power and the appointments of Terry Cassidy and David Smith – the club’s first non-Catholic director – were seen as an attempt to add much needed business acumen to their ranks. But with the future of Parkhead in doubt time was running out and the hugely unpopular and abrasive Cassidy did little to enhance the board’s reputation.
Ambitious plans to relocate to a purpose built ‘Celtic Village’ in Cambuslang was the boards solution to the stadium issue but doubts about the viability of the scheme – which was similar to Dempsey’s Robroyston project - had long been aired. In the meantime a number of potential buyers for the club had emerged, the most credible of these being Fergus McCann. The Croy-born, Canadian-based businessman had made his millions through selling golf holidays to the north American market. He had the backing of Dempsey and proposed to rebuild Celtic Park by selling shares in the club to the support.
A Celtic fan since childhood, McCann had originally approached the board in 1988 with an offer to provide the club with a low interest loan to build a new two tier executive stand in which he hoped to sell hospitality packages. His approach had been quickly dismissed.
With the pressure mounting from all angles the board announced a press conference for what they claimed would be the most momentous announcement in Celtic history. This announcement was no more than another unveiling for the Cambuslang plans, with the board now claiming a Swiss bank was willing to finance the deal.
A little digging from interested parties found that the supposed funding was non-existent. On March 3rd, with the reputation of the board at an all time low and the club facing crippling debts, the Bank of Scotland summoned club officials and told them unless a guarantee of £1m was found within 24 hours then they would begin the process of winding up the club affairs. Finally, the board had no place to run and nowhere to hide.
So it was that just before midday on March 4th 1994 Fergus McCann became recognised as the saviour of Celtic. But this was every bit as much a victory for the fans. As Brian Dempsey would famously comment: “The Rebels have won”.
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