There is reputed to be an old ancient Chinese curse which goes “May you live in interesting times.” The first time I heard it, the irony went right over my head. Maybe I’ve been lucky. As anyone who’s ever lived in “interesting times” will tell you, they ain’t a barrel of laughs.
Sevco Rangers fans have been living in “interesting times” for quite a while now. Dave King’s return, banging the big war drum, assures things will be “interesting” for quite some time to come.
One irony not lost on me is how Sevco Rangers is going through one of its cyclical crises at the moment when Celtic are honouring one of the great men of our history; Fergus McCann. Fergus is everything King is not. Everything Green was not. Everything Whyte was not. And although people in our press will never admit this, he’s everything David Murray was not too.
We know that Whyte rode the club into the abyss. Green blew its only chance of catching Celtic in the next ten years. I’ll come back to King in a moment, but it has to be said that Fergus had the measure of Murray from the minute he walked through the doors of Celtic Park. He knew Murray was less a businessman than a self-absorbed blowhard. He understood full well that Rangers was built on credit, that it was all smoke and mirrors.
He turned a dilapidated stadium into a European arena, and it was important to Fergus, and not just for his business plan, to make it ten thousand seats bigger than the one across town. He knew Murray’s ego would be bruised, and he knew those extra seats would enable us to realise greater earnings through the gate than the Ibrox club.
That was essential, not only to his short term plans but also to his aim in the bigger picture … to replace them as the biggest club in the land once more. Fergus was a great man and he was a great leader. He was not just riding the waves of the moment. He was charting a course for the future. That is what great men, and great leaders, do.
Let me talk for a moment about what makes a great leader. History has seen them from time to time, in all walks of life, but they are rare. When one emerges at a time of crisis they go down in history, and become revered, because they seemed to know just what to do, and they leave an imprint which echoes through the ages.
I have many heroes, and amongst them were undoubted great men. Julius Caesar was a great man, but even greater was his heir and adopted nephew, Octavian, the man history would come to know as Augustus. I enjoy reading about their accomplishments, and I never cease to be amazed how far-sighted they were. They had different skills. Caesar, although an excellent political figure, made his reputation as a truly exceptional general. Octavian’s military successes, at first, owed much to his general and best friend Marcus Agrippa, but he was a spectacularly intuitive politician who dominated the Senate at a very early age and outwitted some of the sharpest minds of his generation.
There is an argument amongst historians about whether “historical greatness” is a term that can be applied to men who have done diabolical things. Hitler is few people’s idea of a hero, but some writers and academics believe he merits recognition as a man possessing the qualities of “historical greatness”, regardless of whether he used it for good ends or ill.
Greatness requires the ability to read the landscape and react to events with decisiveness and clear mindedness. Yet many men possess these skills. We refer to these as tactical skills. Tactical skills can be taught to almost anyone who wishes to learn them although truly great tacticians combine their knowledge with personal intuition.
Caesar was a tactical genius. At the Battle of Alesia, the final showdown with The Gaul’s, he laid siege to their camp, building an enormous wall around it. As his enemies began to rally troops in other parts of the country, Caesar feared that they would attack his forces from behind, catching them between two armies. He responded to this by building a second wall, this one around his own men as well as the enemy camp, to keep out their reinforcements. It is regarded as one of the greatest military feats of all time. Although outnumbered four to one, Caesar triumphed.
Fergus was a great tactician. He outfoxed the old board at every turn. He ran rings around the players who tried to hold us to ransom. In one move of improvised brilliance, he actually took UEFA to court over the John Collins transfer to Monaco, by claiming their principality status made them a separate state, and thereby not part of the European Union. It failed, but it was a wonderful gambit, a move that required real imagination and daring.
David Murray was a great tactician too. He tried to one-up Celtic every chance he got. He made vainglorious boasts, rubbed our face in their financial superiority, he was able to extract vast sums of money from the supporters and others, like King himself, and he understood the value of one-day headlines and the power of chasing dreams.
But being a great tactician does not make a great man. There are other skills which are almost impossible to teach (although there are schools which do teach them) and as with tactics, being great is as much about intuition as it is about knowledge.
This skill-set requires the ability to look beyond the here and now, to analyse not only individual battlefields but the bigger picture. These skills require the co-ordination of forces and assets and are concerned with the setting and attaining of long-term goals. We call these strategic skills. The word itself, “strategy”, comes from the Greek word stratēgos; it very literally means “general.”
Caesar was a strategic genius, as well as a tactical one, a skill he demonstrated early in his career. Octavian was even more far-sighted. He considered Marc Antony an enemy from a time shortly after Julius Caesar’s funeral; they fought one war shortly after the young man tried to take up his estate (which Antony refused to grant him). Yet, when it came time to settle the debt over the murder of his uncle, it was Antony he made common cause with, and with him and Marcus Lepidus they annihilated not only the assassins of Caesar but everyone else who opposed them, and they formed the Second Triumvirate. Then, when Octavian had developed his political and military powers enough, he once again waged war on Antony, defeating him at the Battle of Philippi.
David Murray was not a strategist. He had ambitions and goals, but they were short-term nonsense. He talked, a lot, about having the club march onto a whole other level, but aside from pipedreams and moonbeams about casinos and winning a European Cup, he had no clear ideas about doing it. He squandered not only millions, perhaps not even tens of millions, but as much as £100 million; the kind of money that could have built an entire club infrastructure which might have put them far, far in front of us.
Ten years later, as Celtic were renovating the Celtic Shop, he was selling every single one of the Rangers Shop chain, in return for a pittance. His lack of strategic skills can be recognised in the atrocious state he allowed the club to get into not once but twice.
On the first occasion he showed some measure of tactical skill by doing the old “pea in a plastic cup” routine, moving the debt from one place to another, but it showed no appreciation for strategy. On the second occasion he found his companies at the mercy of the bank, with Rangers being an especial burden. He decided to sell it to the highest bidder.
None came forward until he was literally giving it away. Even then, he talked as though he had a strategy in mind – telling the world he would want to study the bona fides of anyone who came forward, only to sell it to a fly-by-night chancer for a quid. Murray has got by for years on his ability to move pieces on the board. But he was playing checkers, not chess.
Fergus is a strategist par excellance. Building a sixty thousand all seater stadium when the club’s average attendance in the years prior had been a mere twenty-five thousand seemed like hubristic folly. The media called it just that. Upon being given a tour of the staggering North Stand, in the week before it opened, the best thing Gerry McNee could think of to say about it was that it offered a fine view of Ibrox across the city. The media, possessed of single digit IQ’s and single minute attention spans, were never going to get what he was trying to do.
Neither did Murray. He saw Fergus as a minor irritation, here today and gone tomorrow, without realising that the man from Canada was determined to leave behind not only a stunning stadium and a title winning team but the beginnings of the infrastructure that would elevate Celtic beyond his own club. Securing the funding for the training ground, and seeing it built before he went, was only one step towards Fergus’ long term goal.
He appointed Tommy Burns not because Burns had a sterling reputation in the game but because he was a young manager with a future, who talked about plans for developing young sides on the Dutch model. He was selling Fergus the kind of long-term vision the man from Canada wanted for the club. Had they not been such different personalities, we can only speculate about what would have happened … but this club is the better for Tommy’s time in that job, and in the way he came back, to do exactly what he had proposed under Fergus.
When McCann appointed Wim Jansen, in a move scathingly received by the press, who called WIm “the worst thing to hit Hiroshima since the atom bomb” – a disgraceful, tasteless tabloid slur which was breathtaking in its crassness – he was relying on the Dutchman bringing the ethos of his country with him; long term planning, emphasis on youth, building not just for the present day but with an eye on the future.
It became clear, he says, that this was not on the cards. He has said, publicly, that he would have fired Jansen had he not resigned, because Fergus wanted to see a plan for the team that stretched beyond the Year We Stopped The Ten, and Jansen didn’t want to provide him with one. When he appointed Jo Venglos the following season, in another appointment the press treated with contempt, he was appointing a man who had sat at the top of UEFA committees and had long experience at the top of the game … a man known as a builder, a long term thinker.
When Venglos didn’t work out as a manager, McCann replaced him … but it’s telling that he didn’t fire him outright, but gave him a job as European technical advisor and chief scout. That was a far-sighted decision. Venglos helped lay the foundations for the modern Celtic scouting network. Fergus then appointed Brian Quinn as a non-executive director in 1996, a stunning coup for a football club considering his former position as Deputy Governor of the Bank of England – a sure sign that Fergus wanted to leave behind him men who took the long-term view as he did.
Fergus always knew what he was doing, even when other people didn’t see it.
Every act of Fergus McCann’s at Celtic Park was designed to strengthen our overall position for the long term. These were not like Murray’s “marquee” signings, designed to secure short term success. Fergus ditched the Bank of Scotland because he didn’t trust them after the way they’d behaved, and he knew he could get a better deal elsewhere. But he also knew that, long-term, the Bank of Masterton was not going to be a friend. He went after Jim Farry not only to settle the score over Hampden, Tommy Burns and to find out what happened with Jorge Cadete, but because he did not want to leave in power a man who could damage our club when he was gone.
I do not believe Campbell Ogilvie would be in office now had Fergus been in charge. Indeed, he might never have attained that office in the first place. The EBT case would have been pursued to the Court of Arbitration in Sport and beyond. McCann would never have allowed them to get away with that in a million years.
McCann did nothing without thinking about how it affected his long-term objectives. Even his treatment of the Three Amigos was designed to send a message; Celtic would come before the egos of any one individual. That still stands us in good stead today.
Murray apologists, and they are still out there, will read this and think I’m knocking him simply because he was at Rangers and I’m trying to score cheap points. But I can give credit where it’s due, and if Murray deserved it I would have constructed this piece around King instead. Historical greatness does not require that the individual have done some good to the world around him.
Adolf Hitler was both a tactical and strategic genius, capable of analysis, insight and blessed with an iron nerve. Future generations will forever regret that such skills were placed in the hands of a man of such appalling ambitions and maniacal bent. Yet no book about him, or study of him, no matter how well presented, researched or well intentioned is wholly honest if it does not acknowledge that he had these skills, and in these matters there have been few men like him in the world.
Credit where it’s due, even when its results are awful. This is not a character assassination for the sake of it.
David Murray was never a threat to Fergus MccCann. The Canadian trumped him at every turn. Murray, for all his adoring press, was a “jam today”, short-term tactician without a strategic thought in his head. Fergus could have beat him at anything.
Which brings me to Dave King, the latest in a long line of men to roll up at Ibrox with a “plan” that looks as flimsy as a dab of tissue paper in the rain. I’ve covered it at great length in the past two articles, and I’m not going to go over it in again, save to say that the details are thin on the ground. One off spending sprees on players won’t fix the roof, reopen the Rangers Shops, rebuild the scouting network or sort out any of the other, myriad, gaping holes in the Ibrox façade.
These things require more than the ability to raise a rabble. They need to be backed up with more than just a sixty second sound bite, regurgitated by a compliant press.
King does not strike me as a man who has a vision. He has an ambition, a vague, poorly thought out one – “Rangers back where they belong” – but no idea how to reach that promised land other than to play the same old game of Russian Roulette that killed them before. He says so himself; this current Rangers is not “the Rangers I grew up with.”
He’s right. It’s not. The Rangers he grew up with died. But that’s not what he means, of course; he means that it’s not The Rangers that ruled Scottish football for years by spending vast sums of money. He means it’s not The Rangers that was able to outspend Celtic. It’s not The Rangers of marquee signings and dreams of winning the European Cup.
He was on the board of that particular Rangers, and so he must know that it’s precisely the kind of “live fast, die young” attitude he’s espousing right now, as the answer to all their problems, that pulled them into the black hole in the first place. Where’s the evidence that he’s learned a single lesson from that? The ability to learn from past mistakes is one of the things that makes a great strategist.
When Caesar fought Pompey’s armies at Dyrrhachium, his army routed and it would have been a decisive defeat that would certainly have ended his military and political ambitions and led to his death but for Pompey’s conservative nature. Caesar said of that battle, “Today the victory had been the enemy’s, had there been any one among them to take it.”
A short time later, the two armies met again, at Pharsalus. Caesar was outnumbered two to one, but he had learned important lessons. His soldiers refused to charge first, conserving their energy. When Pompey’s force attacked, Caesar, who had studied every battle Pompey had fought, was able to anticipate every move. He positioned his best men on the flank and when Pompey’s cavalry met his, Caesar sent his spears into the fight. Then, when Pompey’s attack broke, he ordered those troops to attack Pompey’s flank, and this time it was the enemy who routed.
The press has spent the last week trumpeting The Return of The King. But it’s not the man from South Africa they are hailing as a genius. It is, rightly, the man from Canada, the man they mercilessly slated, the one they deribed, the one they singularly underestimated, looked down on and failed to understand. The one who endured it all, rebuilt our club, and went home a rich man.
He was ten steps ahead of them at every turn. He is one of the greatest men in the history of Celtic Football Club, itself a special institution with magic in its DNA. Their coming together was historic, and transformational. It changed our outlook and ambition overnight.
As this lengthy piece draws to a close, it would be remiss of me not to point out that Peter Lawwell too, a man I don’t always agree with, is also blessed with a keen strategists intellect. I may be unable to reconcile myself to some aspects of it, but I appreciate the mind behind it.
His elevation to a position of power in the European Club Association is another step towards putting Celtic minded people into key positions in all of the governing bodies which oversee the game, in Scotland and beyond. This is a hitherto undreamed of scenario and we can’t yet know what long term effects it will have, but we can glimpse the future in little moments. If, as some believe, we’re heading for a European League, or some kind of regional competition, then his work in preparing us for it will stand the test of time.
None of this would have been possible had our club not been built on the foundations Fergus McCann laid down, and it’s a testament to how strong those foundations were that we still have long-term thinkers, like Lawwell, at the club.
It will be a decade, at least, before someone on the board at Ibrox is considered worthy of such lofty rank. They have to find someone like that first, and there is no sign that such a person exists. King’s recent statements are all about making the fans feel good about their club again, designed to do nothing more than encourage them to believe that things will be better tomorrow. The truth is, it’s going to be a long, hard slog and because short-term thinking has been the order of the day at Ibrox, again, for the last two years it’s going to be longer than it needed to be.
Sooner or later, Rangers fans will have to accept the truth; they are destined to endure a period of rebuilding, of living on the margins, as their club is rebuilt brick by brick. It will be painful, and they will suffer shattering defeats, especially at the hands of Celtic, until they do.
Doing it takes a strong stomach, and a tough leader.
Marshall Yuri Zhukov, perhaps the greatest military general of the Second World War knew that in order to go forwards, sometimes you need to go back. He and the other notable Russian commanders of the time had a strategy that might best be described as “land for time.” They would allow the Germans to advance so far, then they would meet them with fearsome resistance at pre-determined points, and then they would fall back again, trading more space, buying more time, eroding the effectiveness of the enemy all the while.
Finally, with the Germans at the end of their supply lines, exhausted and freezing in the Russian winter, Zhukov led the counter attacks that shattered German morale. The time they’d spent “retreating” had allowed them to assemble the tanks and planes and equip the armies that turned the course of history and brought about the end of the war.
Sevco Rangers was supposed to have a plan like that. To use their years in the lower leagues to rebuild, to grow the business, to build up their finances. It has been squandered, and there is no-one in plain sight who has any idea what to do next.
They don’t need a Fergus, or even a Caesar. They need a miracle.
Great men are rare. But those are even rarer still.
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