The battle for Celtic’s soul – “No enemy but time”

Monday 4 March 2024 will mark a notable anniversary in Celtic’s history; it is 30 years since the Fergus McCann-led takeover removed the old Board from control…

In this five-part article series, you can relive or simply learn the story of these dramatic off-field events, ones that would build the foundations which have led to the Bhoys’ 21st century dominance. It is remarkable tale, featuring a whole host of characters, including dynasties of Celtic owners, one Scots-Canadian, Willie Falconer – and even a 19th century American train driver!

PART 1 – “No enemy but time”

Before the takeover

In order to truly understand how Celtic’s 1994 takeover came about, it’s important to first go back more than a century beforehand. The origins of the club are well-known; established by an Irish Marist brother to help feed the poor children of Glasgow’s east end. But there is more to the story than this.

Very early in the Bhoys’ history there emerged a split between that those who wanted a charitable focus and those who believed Celtic needed greater business expertise. The renowned club historians Pat Wood and Tom Campbell describe this as “the battle for Celtic’s soul.”

There were various attempts to turn the club from a member-owned organisation to a private company with shareholders. Finally in 1897 this happened and Celtic became a private limited company. There are various arguments as to why this happened. Some simply claim greed, others believe that it was not possible for Celtic to succeed (and thus make charity money) or compete with top Scottish and English teams without this approach.

Whatever the reasons it led to 5000 shares being issued, at a cost of £1 each. This began to concentrate ownership of the club in a smaller group, which in the long run would lead to the rise of Celtic’s dynasties, families who controlled the club across the generations.

Some names associated with 1897 stand out when studying the events of 1994. Most notable is James Kelly, Celtic’s first captain and a man who went on to become club chairman too. His name was amongst the first shareholders. His descendants Michael and Kevin were both on Celtic’s board in 1994.

In addition, the 1897 share issue led to James Grant – a Belfast-born wine merchant – becoming the club’s largest shareholder. His great-grandson, Tom, was also part of 1994’s board. (Tom these days is a great supporter and reader of The Celtic Star, providing us with over a thousand unique and unpublished photographs from his time at the club, so that we can share with the Celtic support).

Although there were other smaller shares issues up to 1919, by 1994 the shares largely remained concentrated in the hands of a small group of families. When they did change hands, it was generally kept within the bloodline, for very low rates. In the early 1990s, Celtic shares sold privately for around £3; by the time of the 1994 changes, £350 was a more common figure.

The mid-2000s book ‘Freakonomics’ examined the role of ‘scions’ and business success. Specifically this looked at big businesses that were passed on to descendants of the original founders. It suggests that such companies tended to struggle over time as those that come after the original owners are often less effective than their forebears.

Various reasons are given for this. This includes the fact that someone setting up a company has to be genuinely driven and skilled or else the company will fail. However someone later handed control of such an organisation will not necessarily have these same abilities.

Anyone examining Celtic in the 1890s and early-1990s cannot help but recognise these failings between the leadership of the different eras. In the 1890s, Celtic had enjoyed a meteoric rise. The Bhoys had gone from a first game in May 1888 to being widely recognised as one of the biggest and most successful clubs in Britain (not just Scotland) by the early-1890s.

As well as huge domestic success (winning all the major regional and national trophies), the Bhoys were in demand for friendlies across Britain. The club’s annual turnover at this time was also said to outstrip any club in Scotland or England. In addition, a new ground (at the current Celtic Park site) was constructed, praised as being amongst the best anywhere in Europe.

It is fair to say that these impressive achievements were no longer evident by the early-1990s. Instead, Celtic were in a club in dire need of change and improvement. The stadium was crumbling, debts were rising and on-field the football was terrible. As well as failing to win anything for years, the club often struggled to even achieve a European place.

All attempts to rectify this situation failed. New blood was brought onto the Board – such as Michael Kelly and Brian Dempsey – but this often led to more acrimony and argument. And attempts by outsiders to offer investment – including Fergus McCann – were rebuffed.

With the club’s growing debt – in 1992-93 the club borrowed more money than it had previously done in its entire history – there seemed to be little hope on the horizon. And there was one huge problem coming Celtic’s way. The 1989 Hillsborough tragedy had led to a requirement to have an all-seated stadium, and the Bhoys had no fixed plan to achieve this.


The fans were not prepared to accept this situation. Protest groups were formed, starting with Save our Celts, which came before the more famous Celts for Change. They took part in various protests, although other unofficial actions took place, not least the regular tune of ‘Sack the board’ echoing around an increasingly empty Celtic Park.

And it was not just ordinary fans who eyed change; many of the club’s richest backers hovered in the background, waiting for their chance to bring change to Celtic. The scene was set for a grand battle. It was a conflict that would see Celtic taken to the brink of administration and even ruin.  It should be noted

Visit The Celtic Star tomorrow to read Part 2 of this five-part series.

Matthew Marr


About Author

Matthew Marr first started going to see Celtic in the 1980s and has had a season ticket since 1992. His main Celtic interest is the club's history, especially the early years. In 2023, Matthew published his first Celtic book, telling the story of the Bhoys' first league title. He also runs Celtic history walking tours.

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