Football: Celtic at mercy of a power game: James Traynor on a critical meeting to decide the future of a club at war

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The Independent Online
THE original people's club, Celtic, once a mighty force in European football, have been allowed to fall over a period of years to a level of mediocrity which has riven this once-great institution. The masses are in open revolt and at a meeting this week, an acrimonious struggle for control of the club will come to a head.

Many see this gathering as marking either a new beginning or a miserable ending. A group of shareholders will attempt to convince the majority of the 170 shareholders at an extraordinary general meeting at Celtic Park on Friday night that if the club, Britain's first winners of the European Cup, are to have a future, the present directors must be removed from office.

While the power brokers, who have been arguing for almost three years, conduct their final act in the warmth of one of the stadium's hospitality suites, the fans, who have formed themselves into pressure groups, will mill around outside. The latest of these, CFC, Celts for Change, intend setting up a soup kitchen in the car park to help insulate against the cold.

The fans, bemused, watch a depressing saga between the dynasties (the White and Kelly families), who are determined to keep Celtic within their grasp, and wealthy outsiders. In recent times, the club's raison d'etre has been forgotten by those clinging desperately to power and the others trying to shoulder down the front door.

Formed in 1888 to raise money for the needy in Glasgow's East End, Celtic is now dominated by games being played in court rooms and the offices of bank managers between teams of lawyers and financial advisers.

The main players are five of the present board of directors, Kevin Kelly, the chairman, and his cousin Michael Kelly, Chris White (the largest individual shareholder), Tom Grant, and the newcomer from the world of business buy-outs, David Smith. It is believed Smith, with the backing of White, is the dominant force and the one keeping the banks at bay. The two other directors are Jack McGinn and Jimmy Farrell.

The board have placed faith in solving the club's financial problems by moving to a new all-events stadium in the Cambuslang area of Glasgow. Superstadia, a London-based company, say they can pull together enough money to finance the project. Patrick Nally, a mover and shaker in the world of sport, is at the centre of negotiations to provide funding for the stadium, which Celtic would then rent.

Numerous problems must be overcome before the Cambuslang site would be fit for building but Nally and his allies on Celtic's board insist the stadium will rise. Sceptics abound, however, and the rebels believe the multi-million pound Cambuslang project to be no more than a diversion from the root cause of Celtic's malaise.

The group trying to wrest control away from the directors appear to be reading the signs more astutely. These people, led by a wealthy Glasgow businessman, Brian Dempsey, and an even richer Scottish-born Canadian, Fergus McCann, are prepared to address the club's immediate problems. Like the fans, they worry about a bank overdraft nudging pounds 5m and the work which must still be done within Celtic Park to square the old place with the Taylor Report.

Also, this faction are aware there must be a fund from which the new manager, Lou Macari, can draw as he tries to rebuild the team, at present sixth in the Premier Division. McCann has already deposited pounds 12m with the club's bankers, the Bank of Scotland, and his package, which will be offered to the shareholders on Friday night will take the money available to the club to pounds 18m.

Regarded by the majority of the fans as the only man who can save the club, Dempsey says that if the Celtic Executive Club's 300 members - fans with money and faith - withdrew their financial backing, Celtic could lose up to pounds 600,000.

It would be naive to ignore the fact that bad blood courses between Dempsey and Michael Kelly who, along with White, plotted almost three years ago to have Dempsey removed from the board. At that time, Dempsey had a plan to give Celtic a plot of his own land in the Robroyston area of the city on which a new stadium could have been built, but a whispering campaign suggested his only angle was to line his own pockets. Indignation made him walk away from the club, but he returned to the fight because he fears there can be no future with the present regime.

Originally he campaigned on his own while McCann was putting together his own package, but logic prevailed and these two became allies. Now they command considerable financial muscle and, through Dempsey, great support among the fans, who have come to regard the battle as one between good and evil. But will 'good' triumph on Friday? If Dempsey, McCann, and their backers, who include another millionaire resident in Bermuda, are to succeed much depends on a court ruling expected on Thursday.

The legality of a pact which both Kellys, White, Grant, and Smith signed to ensure that none of their group could vote or use his shares against the others is being examined. If the courts in Edinburgh decide it is illegal then the shares they hold (about 40 per cent) would have to be re-registered and would become redundant for Friday's meeting. Dempsey and McCann, who have call on between 35 and 40 per cent, depending on which side Farrell chooses, would then be in a powerful position to secure the two-thirds majority necessary.

However, should the pact be deemed legal, the chances of a rebel victory become much reduced. Dempsey and McCann would then walk away from the club never to return. The fans, who will be huddled outside, hands wrapped around mugs of soup, waiting for news, will also begin dispersing into the darkness believing their club to have moved beyond redemption.

James Traynor writes on football for the Herald, Glasgow.