The Dark Days: Back The Team And Sack The Board!

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Thanks to those who asked me about the rest of the Dark Days pieces … here’s Part 5. 

You can read the first four here;

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

With Liam Brady gone and Celtic hovering around the bottom of the league table, anxiety levels were high.

Celtic were beginning to look like realistic relegation contenders and in a moment of cruel irony, the only time the team did deliver a decent performance for Brady that season, we crushed club legend Danny McGrain’s Arbroath 9-1 before going onto suffer the latest in a long line of League Cup semi final exits, once again by 1-0 and once again to Rangers.

Something had to be done. Something drastic and fast. But with the old board in place there was little chance of that so while they twiddled their fingers and to a man entered and left Celtic Park under cover of darkness lifelong Celtic man and club coach Frank Connor stood in and took over.

Connor was a former Celtic goalkeeper from the early 60’s and made 8 first team appearances before moving to Portadown in 1962. He returned from Irish football and took over as our reserves coach in 1978-1979 before managing Berwick Rangers until 1982 and then becoming former and then future Ranger’s manager Jock Wallace’s assistant at Motherwell for a season in 1982-1983. One can only imagine the kinds of things that were being ‘said’ in that dressing room after a bad performance as both were notorious for deploying language that could tear strips off of the wall and delivering the hair-dryer treatment for anyone regarded as under-performing.

Frank then returned to his first love and became first team assistant to Davie Hay upon his installation as manager in 1983 but was sacked by Hay in 1986. To this day no one really knows why. Hay himself didn’t last much longer without him losing his job after finishing up empty handed in the 1986-1987 season. Four years were then spent at Raith Rovers where he guided them to promotion to the old 1st Divsion and then three seasons there, building the foundations for Jimmy Nicholl to take over and take them to far greater success in the 90’s

He became Joe Jordan’s assistant at Hearts in 1990 and then joined Jordan when he became Liam Brady’s assistant coach at Celtic in 1993. Jordan departed with Brady leaving Connor in charge at the desperate board’s behest whilst a replacement was sought.

Frank Connor officially managed Celtic for three matches and remains to this day our only unbeaten manager.

These included a win and a draw in the league and a 1-0 win over Sporting Lisbon in the UEFA cup 2nd round, first leg. Liam Brady had already masterminded our progression from the 1st round via a 1-0 aggregate win over Young Boys with Bauman scoring an OG in extra time at Celtic Park after a 0-0 result in Switzerland.

In hindsight, Connor would have been a better shout for the job but alas.

Lou Macari took over as the new Celtic manager on 27th October 1993.

One of the late 60’s quality street kids he had scored 58 goals in 110 games for Celtic and won 9 trophies before moving to Man Utd in 1973.

As a manager in England’s lower leagues he had been an undoubted success. He had guided Swindon Town to become Fourth Division champions in 1985-86 and then to win the Third Division Play-offs the very next season in 1986-1987. After back to back promotions he was brought in by West Ham United in 1989 but found this job more testing and was also struggling under the strain of an investigation by the Football Association after he bet on his own team Swindon to lose an FA Cup tie against Newcastle United the previous term.

He was eventually found guilty and fined £1000.

West Ham sacked him in February of 1990 and eventually finished in seventh place, two points outside of the promotion play-off places to the top flight.

Macari bounced back though and won the Football League trophy with Birmingham City in 1991 and then guided Stoke City to the same trophy the following year and the Second Division title the season after that which had included a 25 game unbeaten run.

It might seem strange now but Celtic fans were actually excited about this appointment.

Here was a man with a strong association to the club who had been part of a legendary time for Celtic under Jock Stein and who had proved his worth as a manger down south. For once it seemed like the board had got it right. Macari was a disciplinarian who demanded top fitness levels, proper diets and high intensity training sessions. Or so we were told. His teams were known to play a for more direct and conservative brand of football than what Celtic fans had historically been used to and even though he had been unsuccessful Brady’s team were regularly exciting. But this more practical approach was seen as welcome with the club being close to the relegation positions, albeit still early in the season.

Macari’s first game in charge was the very definition of a baptism of fire as we played Rangers in the league at Ibrox only 3 days after his appointment.

With Celtic 1-0 down, Rangers back-up keeper Ally Maxwell, filling in for Andy Goram who was either injured or off in a caravan somewhere wearing ladies underwear, stepped forward and from an innocuous cross dropped the ball at John Collins feet who gladly accepted and in what seemed like slow motion eventually fired it into the back of the net to equalise. Then in injury time Brian O’Neil bulleted in a header at close range from a corner. A 2-1 win in injury time with the last head of the ball and all in front of the Broomloan as well.

Back then it literally couldn’t get any any better.

Not the View ran the title ‘Dream Team’ on the following week’s fanzine.

It certainly was the dream start for Macari even though it had been Frank Connor who had actually prepared and picked the team for the game. If there had been optimism about Macari’s appointment before the game it had really been ramped up now.

Macari went on a 10 game unbeaten league run including this one and added to the 2 game unbeaten league tenure of Frank Connor we went into the New Year’s derby game at Celtic Park against Rangers pretty confident with 7 wins and 5 draws.

We had only conceded 5 goals in 10 matches under Macari and had kept 6 consecutive clean sheets going in.

His only defeat was a 2-0 UEFA Cup loss in Lisbon against Sporting which saw us eliminated 2-1 on aggregate though getting anything over there was always going to be unlikely.

I remember walking into Celtic Park that day grey afternoon to face our bitter rivals.

There was a real feeling of expectation.

I remember one fan a few rows behind us throwing a box of green and white confetti up in the air as the players ran out onto the pitch. Rangers themselves were having a difficult season and were not running away with it as in previous years. They had already suffered 5 defeats in the league and three weeks previously had been hammered 3-0 at home by Dundee Utd. However what followed was from a Celtic perspective a completely unmitigated disaster.

Celtic deployed an unfathomably high defensive line and were a goal down after 58 seconds after Mark Hateley ran clear from virtually the halfway line and finished. A mere 2 mins later we were 2-0 down as Rangers split the Celtic defence in two once again around the halfway line, as Durie passed from his own half through to Neil Murray who raced through one on one with Packie Bonner only for his shot to be deflected off of Bonner’s foot into the path of on-running Alexei Mikhailichenko who dispatched accordingly.

Before the half hour mark the Ukrainian scored the third which caused one Celtic fan to invade the pitch and lunge at Rangers keeper Ally Maxwell presumably due to Maxwell’s inability to reproduce a display similar to the one he had in the previous meeting.

However it also lit the fuse of an absolute torrent of abuse towards the Celtic directors box.

The Celtic fans had finally had enough.

Coins (all of which were likely received gleefully) as well as pies, bovril and even Mars bars rained down on Kelly, White and company.

Rumours of impeding financial disaster off of the pitch was one thing but getting hammered at home on New Years’ Day in an Old Firm game was just too much. John Collins pulled one back for Celtic before Rangers flop Oleg Kuznetsov scored his solitary goal for the light blues with a screamer from outside the box on the volley to kill off any lingering hopes of a fightback. Charlie Nicholas scored a consolation in the last 9 mins of a dark day.

The ‘Sack the Board’ campaign led by Celts for Change had started up in 1993 and as the season progressed had picked up at a rate of knots in popularity. There had been a previous group created in 1991 by Willie Wilson called ‘Save Our Celts’ that had been prompted by the late 1990 dismissal of popular Celtic board member Brian Dempsey but it had pretty much folded that same year with a general apathy towards proposed boycotting etc.

‘Celts for Change’ was originally composed of Matt McGlone, Brendan Sweeney, Colin Duncan, David Cunningham and John Thompson.

Matt McGlone was the editor of the then relatively recent Celtic fanzine ‘Once A Tim’ and used it as a vehicle to help push forward the Celts for Change agenda.

Fans had challenged Michael Kelly after the 2-1 defeat in Perth to St.Johnstone that led to Liam Brady’s resignation earlier in the season. It almost got physical. The board had become regarded rightly as pariah’s who were only taking and not giving anything back.

This was probably best summed up in the 1993 New Year’s Eve episode of Only An Excuse (back when it was actually a must see annual event) when Jonathan Watson portrayed Michael Kelly making an official board announcement at a press conference.

It went something like “Leave us alone. Gee us yer money.”

In the wake of the Taylor report Celtic were under real pressure to build a suitable all-seater stadium.

Terry Cassidy had made several noises about delivering one during his time as Chief Executive but it had all been high on hubris and low on detail. Several proposed dates of a supposedly big announcement had come and gone with either no specifics or indeed no word at all.

In the end the extent of it had been seats installed in the jungle at the start of the 93-94′ campaign.

What a bizarre sight that was.

Bottle green in colour it was easy to con yourself into thinking they didn’t look that bad. But the reality was installing seats into an old terrace was a travesty not to mention a potential accident waiting to happen.

It’s difficult to explain to fans of a certain more recent vintage just how decrepit the old Celtic Park was back then.

It really was a different world.

The areas and estates around the ground were horrifically impoverished to such an extent it was like a demilitarised zone. The old stands themselves were like large open breeze blocks that had limited to zero facilities or conveniences. Of course it could help generate an electric atmosphere but as with most things there is a certain romance that’s associated to them which neglects to tell the full story. On standard weekday evening league or early round cup games shrouded in darkness, when the rain was pouring, the crowds were down and there was a general malaise about the club the stands merely helped create a largely cavernous atmosphere and looked dated and depressing. They were also a permanent reminder of how far we had fallen behind Rangers and their comparatively plush Ibrox stadium surroundings.

The Celtic Board tried to alleviate concerns over the stadium by pushing forward the charade that was Cambuslang.

Honestly that could get a whole article by itself.

Basically the board claimed it was feasible to build multi-purpose 50,000 seater stadium in Cambuslang for free.

Apparently loads of interested corporate partners and sponsors would foot the bill.

Who can forget Kevin Kelly parading around with a huge blown-up placard of the stadium design under his arm for the press? The idea had been getting knocked around since April 1992 with no sign of any actual work being done on it. It was the mother of all stalling tactics. Keeping the wolf from the door so to speak by telling it you were moving house and hoping it believed you. Kevin Kelly even had his picture taken on an empty plot of land in Cambuslang with has hands reaching out in full on Messiah mode under the heading ‘Paradise Found’.

It was going to have it all. Everything from a rail station, retail village, club heritage museum, ten-pin bowling alley and a multi-screen cinema complex.

It all sounded amazing but was going to cost £100 million and the moment that figure hit the press you realised it was all pie in the sky.

That had dropped by an incredible £50 million within two years but was still completely unfeasible.

Bear in mind that two years before the first mentions of Cambuslang previous chairman Jack McGinn had announced Celtic Park would be given a £30 million all-seater face-lift. That went the way of the Dodo to but it had at least sounded feasible. The Cambuslang ‘project’ on the other hand was for better words ‘ripping the piss’.

Michael Kelly even had the brass balls to go on Archie MacPherson’s Monday night panel show Sport in Question in 1993 and insist the project was right on track and that despite debts rumoured to be approaching an alarming £7-8 million that things financially had never been better.

You kind of get the feeling that Kelly is the sort of character so far in denial that if he saw a planet sized meteor hurtling towards earth he’d dismiss it as just a big hailstone.

Even the company rumoured to be building the new stadium, the somewhat ambiguously titled Stadivarious, had little knowledge of what was going on and even less credibility to go with it. Indeed if memory serves their managing director Patrick Nally was being pursued through American courts by various ex-tennis pros for millions. Nally claimed it was a misunderstanding. There was an even bigger misunderstanding though with the Swiss backers, Gefinor, who were allegedly going to finance Cambuslang.

They were so well known within sporting business circles that their name had to be spelled out to any press conferences held by Nally or the board.

They also put something of a spanner in the works by denying that they were involved in any way shape or form in providing any finance for a football stadium when someone within the Scottish mainstream media decided to actually call them in order to seek clarification.

In the end Nally disappeared into a puff of smoke. Meanwhile Gefinor Capital continues to operate and they still haven’t heard of Michael Kelly or Cambuslang.

I mean if this all sounds rather farcical believe me it was and even more so when played out intermittently on the news over two years. Yet the Celtic View, which may as well have been called Pravda back then, continued to paint a disconnected narrative of progress and good times ahead.

The stadium aside the signings had become comically bad.

Indeed it was his transfer activities that really undermined Macari in most Celtic fans eyes.

Several veterans such as Frank McAvennie, Gary Gillespie and Dariusz Wdowzcyck got their long overdue jotters. But the likes of Andy Payton and Gerry Creaney still had something to offer and time on their side yet were shipped out. In their place came inferior replacements such as Lee Martin, Willie Falconer, the returning Andy Walker (who had already become a shadow of himself before he left the club originally) and of course Wayne Biggins.

Biggins came to sum up to most Celtic fans everything that was wrong with that season and the era in general.

That being the jersey literally shrinking to fit inferior players.

Biggins goals to game ratio coming into Celtic as a striker hadn’t been that bad. I still remember the sports reports on the nightly news showing replays of a free kick goal he scored for Barnsley over and over again after confirmation of his signing. The problem was that none of his goals had ever been scored at the highest level. Unsurprisingly he never hit the net once in 10 outings for Celtic. Macari flogged him back down south to his former employers Stoke City a mere 3 months later.

Lee Martin was another piss-poor player who we actually went to a tribunal for with previous club Manchester United over his transfer fee.

The drawn out court proceedings ended up taking longer that his actual career and the press took great joy in mocking the club when the figure of £350,000 was eventually settled on. The lowest point for me though was the signings of Gary Holt and Justin Whittle from The Army.

Yes that’s right they were squadies.

I can still visualise that picture of both of them holding up their club numbers on the substitute boards either side of Macari on the back page of the Daily Record like it was something that was going to get the fans excited. What an absolute shambles and at that point I remember feeling genuinely embarrassed to support Celtic which even during the regular big game heartbreak of the previous 5 years coupled with the lack of a title challenge, a European run or silverware I had never felt before.

It was as if any real optimism had finally died and I had accepted we were completely mediocre and now operating in a transfer basement bucket that not even Motherwell or Hearts would scrape to.

As for things back on the pitch after the New Year’s Old Firm mauling, well let’s just say it didn’t do too much to improve the mood or to distract from the Celts for Change campaign.

We lost the next two matches. Beaten away to Partick Thistle and Motherwell which was followed by 3 draws.

Celtic never won another game until the 12th of February 1994 when we beat Hearts 2-0 at Tynecastle.

This run included us getting eliminated from the Scottish Cup at the 3rd round stage on January 29th at Fir Park to Motherwell who were beating us for fun it seemed back then. That was the club’s earliest Cup exit since 1976 which funnily enough (not that it’s actually funny) had also been against Motherwell and at Fir Park to.

We only lost 2 of the final 18 league games of the season but incredibly drew 10 of them and only won 6.

Yes you read that right. We only scored more than 2 goals in a game in the league twice in 31 games under Macari.

We actually only scored more than one goal in a league game on 12 occasions out of 31.

The football was dreadful under Lou Macari.

We had become negative draw specialists. Summed up by ending the season with four back to back 1-1 results which included games at Ibrox and Pittodrie.

Yet somehow we only finished 8 points behind Rangers who won it again, and 5 points behind Aberdeen in second who’d taken it almost to the wire that year.

Overall we recorded a mind blowing 20 draws in 44 league games that season. Though astoundingly so did St.Johnstone, Hearts and Dundee Utd. Compare that to the season just passed in Scottish football where Kilmarnock recorded the most draws with 14 albeit it’s a 38 game season now compared to the mammoth 44 of back then.

Aberdeen actually went one better and recorded 21. To think if they had turned 4 of those draws into wins they would have stopped Rangers from making it 6 in a row. Rangers were actually toiling at that point having only won 50% of their league games. But it was safe to say we were in a much, much worse state.

Of course we did get one almighty boost before the season had ended. Indeed on the eve of what could have been the club’s darkest day on March 4th, 1994 we instead got one of it’s brightest moments when Fergus McCann emerged from Celtic Park flanked by Brian Dempsey who announced ‘The Game is Over. The Rebels Have Won’.

In the weeks leading up to this Celts for Change had really mobilised the fans.

The ‘Sack The Board’ chant ran throughout games, the board were picketed whilst entering and leaving the ground, there were organised demonstrations with ‘Sack The Board’ signs and T-Shirts inside the ground and ultimately culminating in a boycott against Kilmarnock on Tuesday March 1st where only 8225 had shown up.

The board claimed they got their break even number of just over 10 thousand but Celts For Change had paid an agency to stand by the turnstiles and count everyone going in. I was actually inside the ground for the game that night and didn’t take part in the boycott. Being 12 I didn’t have much choice. My father said we were going in and that was that. It was completely optional and there was no crossing picket lines nonsense from those protesting outside.

The Celts For Change group realised this was hard for fans and that it even contradicted their own mantra of ‘Back the Team. Sack the Board’.

It had the desired effect though.

It hit the board hard in the picket, sent alarm bells ringing at the bank and the ghostly atmosphere inside the stadium that evening would send shivers down anyone’s spine. Looking around the ground that damp night the board must have known that game was up. They were now being starved out and their ignorant belief that the fans would always show up no matter what had been disproved.

There had also been several rallies held in various halls and venues.

I attended one with my father.

I’m pretty sure it was down by the Saltmarket. It was packed to the rafters. There was an overwhelming sense of outrage mixed with determination and hope. Various Celts For Change members took to the floor and presented strong words. One unfortunately tried to rattle off a ‘War & Peace’ length speech which while relevant was far too convoluted and his message got lost in wolf whistles. Brian Dempsey then arrived.

Dempsey really was a showman. With his perfectly groomed hair, unseasonable tan, glistening white teeth and camel coat he looked the business. He proceeded to deliver a succinct and rousing speech with complete confidence that effectively brought the house down.

Back then it was Dempsey who was going to save Celtic. No one really knew much about McCann. At that stage he was a shadowy figure in the background. Gerald Weisfeld also took to the stage. He looked comparatively ridiculous wearing a silk shirt, brandishing a cigar and wearing a fedora. His words were more vague and less assured. But he had money and wanted to plough it into Celtic so he also got a round of applause.

Dempsey departed moments later to a standing ovation with people literally believing there was a white horse outside that he would be riding up towards Celtic Park that evening to take control. If there had been rose petals available they probably would have been thrown at his feet.

It was all rather surreal, slightly ridiculous, highly entertaining and completely inspiring at the same time.

It remains my most abiding memory of the ‘Sack The Board’ and Celts for Change era if you can call it that.

Celts For Change now a have plaque dedicated to them by the club in recognition for their efforts situated in front of the main stand entrance which was unveiled in 2013. It was long overdue and richly deserved. It would have been easy to sit back and merely voice complaints from the terrace and to finally be proactive when it was all too late. But they mobilised well in advance of any potential doomsday and led a long, exhausting campaign that wasn’t always universally popular.

As a support we will forever be in their debt.

In the end it was ultimately Fergus McCann who saved Celtic with a fair amount of assistance from the fans and Celts For Change.

He delivered a plan and the money to back it up and prevented an insolvency event at the 11th hour. From the moment he took control he literally turned the ship about and began steering formerly into the direction of the promised land. One of the first things he did was sack Lou Macari.

Some would argue that Macari’s awful signings and his teams dreadful and negative performances were simply a consequences of the times and circumstances. There’s some truth in that. However when McCann revealed that Macari had never actually moved to Glasgow and spent half the week with his family down in England any sympathy waned. He was sacked on June 14th 1994 after only 8 months in charge and only 3 months after the ousting of the old board.

I still remember him being on the nightly news not long after pleading his case and embarrassingly using the end of season summer football tournament in Canada held in late May of 94′ where Celtic lifted the Hamilton Cup, after two wins against Hearts and Aberdeen in front of crowds of less than 6,000, as evidence of progress.

He also pointed to only 2 defeats in the final 18 league games whilst neglecting to mention the 10 draws and the turgid nature of the performances.

He took Celtic to court over damages due to wrongful dismal.

If he’d been up against Chris White he’d probably have won. He wasn’t though. Fergus McCann was now in charge and Macari lost both the initial case and the appeal. He returned to English football and Stoke City soon after taking with him his Army signings Gary Holt and Justin Whittle, neither of whom had ever kicked a ball in anger for the Hoops. However he wasn’t able to replicate his previous success in the English lower leagues.

He eventually dropped out of football management for good in 2002.

Next time we’ll be looking at the 1994-1995 season.

Things weren’t so dark any more now that Fergus was in control but there was still plenty of days to forget that I’ll take great pleasure in reminding you all of.

Paul Cassidy didn’t enjoy writing this one any more than he enjoyed living through it …

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  • Geoff says:

    Not everyone needs reminded of the dark days as there are plenty of books out there.
    We live and watch in the present so let’s have less of the you don’t know how good you’ve got it.
    Been there since 1963 and know what bad times are!

    • Nick66 says:

      Agree Geof, I became a fan when we were riding high in the early 70s, born in 66 I sometimes joke that I was there in 67, then my dad boots me arse. 50 years I have followed Celtic good times and bad, I will never waver in that support til I shuffle of this mortal coil.

  • James White says:

    Brilliant stuff from Paul Cassidy. A reminder of what happens when those who sit in the comfy seats in the main stand believe that they are actually Celtic. Celtic is the fans.

    Now fast forward to present day. Every home game pretty much sold out and a hefty waiting list for season tickets. There were even people outside the stadium on Saturday waving cash in the air hoping to grab a spare ticket. Just for a bog standard league game versus Hibs. Incredible actually.

    We are now under the control of the Desmond family and have been for around 18 years. Where are they taking the club ? Do they recognise the need to upgrade and increase the capacity of the now very old main stand ? Not a peep from DD. Keep a very close eye on the Desmond family.

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