It has been 25 years since Fergus McCann saved Celtic with the help of Celts for Change to oust the old board and start afresh with the club minutes away from closing its doors.
It seems like a perfect time to roll out a retro interview from a major figure during the Fergus McCann years – a man who was responsible for the comings and goings at Celtic and the man tasked with keeping the media at bay when he once sat on the other side of the fence. That man is Jock Brown – Celtic’s former general manager.
Jock held the position for an action-packed 510 days during arguably one of the club’s most critical periods in their history. He kindly agreed to meet me (Hebburnbhoy) in his plush office space in the centre of Glasgow, and that trip down memory lane begins…
This retro interview took place six years ago with Jock being very candid, honest and open about his time at Celtic. The failings and the triumphs and stopping the ten.
*This interview was first published in a Celtic fanzine but this is its debut online.
HB: When you applied for the general manager’s job, do you think you stood much of a chance of getting it?
JB: I didn’t apply. In fact, I had to be massively persuaded to even think about it. I was headhunted for it, and for the first three or four phone calls I got, I said ‘no thanks’, but such was the persistence of the guy making the call, I said ‘ alright I’ll have a meeting’.
Who was the guy making the call, Fergus McCann?
No, it was the headhunter. So I met the headhunter and I spent a long time with him actually. The next day I got a phone call asking if I would meet Fergus McCann, which I was quite intrigued to do so obviously. I still didn’t think it was going to go anywhere at this point mind you, but I then met him. I liked him. We got on well, I then met the board, and things went on from there, but to answer your question, I didn’t apply. In fact I was reluctant to do so.
You said you were under strict orders from Fergus McCann to keep the unveiling of Wim Jansen as head coach under wraps until the last possible minute. What purpose did this serve, and is this a move you now regret?
Well, the PLC board, who I met before taking the job…they were very concerned at the fact that Celtic Park leaked like a sieve. Everything appeared in the press before it was announced, and one of the tasks I was given was to shut off leaks and get things done properly. In other words, when an announcement was going to be made, it wouldn’t have been pre-empted in the media. I made a point at the time – and it was quite an important point – that I think I know how to do that, with my background in the legal business/journalism, but that will undoubtedly create a problem with the job description. I said to Fergus that if I was going to shut off leaks, it meant that I would become a target. If I was to become a target, being the mouthpiece of the club, which is what he wanted, then it would make it impossible. I said that gave the job a maximum lifespan of two years. He disagreed with that completely. I told him that if I shut off leaks successfully, and it becomes known that I’m doing that, then I’d undoubtedly be a target, especially as I’d be the one doing the pre and post-match interviews. It wouldn’t work, but Fergus wouldn’t be persuaded on that at that time. I foolishly thought I could change that once I was in. One of my biggest worries was that once I was in, I knew all the press guys and they all knew me. To be quite honest some of them were my pals. I made it clear that I wouldn’t give any favouritism, I wouldn’t give any leaks, and that I would do it professionally and properly. But they never thought I wouldn’t feed it, because that goes on all the time, and they didn’t believe I wouldn’t do that. They got very high and mighty about that. One of the biggest tests of the confidentiality and professionalism was to keep the Jansen thing quiet until it was announced. Now, that was undoubtedly a mistake. I regret that, but I couldn’t win the argument at that time. I made the argument much more strongly later, but… you see a year later, Jansen’s gone and we’re looking for a new head coach. The papers decided it was going to be Gerard Houllier and the first time his name was mentioned, the only thing the papers talked about was his defeat in the World Cup Qualifiers against Bulgaria in 1993 (whilst he was France coach), but two weeks later, he became the Messiah in the press, because they looked into him a bit more and realised that this guy had a bit of substance about him, so by the time it was confirmed he wasn’t coming to us, I was pilloried for not getting him! But he was never coming! I met him though, and I discussed it with him, but he told me in the first conversation that he was going to Liverpool. He showed me his contract in fact, which was a choker of a contract. Now, that led me to understand that the only way to get good coverage for your new head coach when you’re general manager is to leak it first. By the time it’s announced, everyone realises it’s a good idea, but you’ll recall when Jansen came in – no one knows who he is from a hole in the wall and one paper ran with the headline “The second worst thing to hit Japan after Hiroshima”. Now we all know that was totally unfair and unreasonable, but it was because of the frustration on the part of the journalist because none of them had a clue what was happening. I could have made a fortune at that time by leaking that, and you can imagine what it’s like in a press conference when a new manager is unveiled and no one knows who is coming. It’s never happened before or since. At the time, the PLC board were cock-a-hoop. They thought it was terrific we managed to achieve that, but I knew even then we would pay the price for it, so it was a mistake, yes. But hey – the leaks were sorted though!
You said in your book ‘Celtic Minded’ that it was nigh-on impossible to get Paolo di Canio to stay, but what about Jorge Cadete? Do you think if he was informed of the signings that were in the pipeline, he might have been persuaded to stay on?
Cadete wasn’t interested in any prospective signings. Cadete agreed to stay regardless of this. I went to Portugal with the doc and we met him at his house in Lisbon. He was a lovely guy, he treated us well, great hospitality, everything. I agreed a four year deal with him eventually in his living room. Was he going to be made the highest paid player? Er… Can’t remember. Probably not. He would have been up there, but probably not. But anyway, he was coming back. But the only thing that troubled me – and I said to the doc when we were over there – we were in this lovely house of his all afternoon, and his wife was there all that time, but never came in to meet us. We were going back to the airport and I said ‘I’m a bit uneasy about the wife thing because you’d expect her to come in and meet us’, yet she stayed out of the way. By the time the plane landed, I had three or four messages from Cadete saying I can’t come, my wife won’t let me. He was actually in tears. So Cadete wanted to come back, but his matrimonial situation prevented it, which was sad because he could have been terrific alongside Larsson, wouldn’t he?!
When you saw Cadete and Di Canio leave, did you honestly think we would win the league and ‘stop the ten’?
Yeah, I did. Why not? I knew we had a decent squad, and that squad done very well under Tommy Burns. We had a lot of good footballers there and I knew we were going to strengthen. So I knew that if we strengthened correctly, we’d certainly be competitive.
At which point in the season did you know that Jansen wasn’t going to stay on? Was it around the time it was announced on the club hotline around March time, or another time?
The day he signed the contract to come. Really? I knew he’d only stay for a year. He asked for a one year contract. Do you mean a three year contract with breaks after each year? No, he asked for a one year contract, but we said that’s no good to us. We need a three year contract, and the compromise we struck was that he signed a three year contract with break clauses after each year, similar to what you said. I remember saying to Fergus ‘that won’t be a problem’, because once he’s here for two weeks, he’ll know this is the place to stay, and the clause won’t be an issue. But it soon became apparent that this wasn’t the case and that he was only going to stay for one year.
OK, then, based on that – at which point did you start looking for a new head coach?
(Long pause) Constantly. I had no doubt in my mind he was leaving. I actually told Fergus later that he wouldn’t be there next season (1998/99), and everything about his demeanour, the way he went about his business… he never watched reserve games, he never watched youth team games, he never watched any games apart from the first team, and that’s not the behaviour of a guy who is here for the long term. Especially for a guy who, officially has a three year contract? Well yeah, exactly. I mean, Jozef Venglos – the first thing he asked when he arrived was when the under-18 team was playing so he could go and watch it. Wim was very much a one year man in all he done, but I still felt -and I think Fergus did too – that at the start that he would come in, see the sheer size and scale of the place he would realise that there’s nowhere else to be.
The Larsson deal. How close was it to collapsing?
I don’t know actually. There were certain hurdles to overcome. As far as I was concerned, it was going to happen. But there were big hurdles. He had a court case over in Holland and I had to read all the papers on that and tell the board my view on all of that and see if the deal was viable. I formed a view that we would win, and we waited on that basis. Then, he had a problem with his dog! In fact that was more worrying than the court case at the time! But he wanted to come, and we wanted him to come, and I think whatever was required, we would have solved it.
Not many people can claim to say this, but I knew he was going to be a roaring success at Celtic as soon as he was linked after watching him at USA 94. Did you have a similar feeling towards the deal too?
Yes, I had no doubt in my mind he wouldn’t be a star, and that was reinforced by the fact that I covered Sweden’s games in the World Cup in 1994, but also due to the fact that my brother (Craig) was Scotland manager at the time. The day Larsson signed for Celtic was the same day Craig’s daughter got married in Prestwick. I was meant to be at the wedding. I went down to the service at 2 o’clock, and I said to Craig, ‘listen, I’m going to slip away after the ceremony to go back up to Glasgow, and I’ll be back down for the reception.’ He asked me what could be so important and I said ‘I’m going to sign a player’. ‘Who is it?’ he asked. ‘Henrik Larsson’, I replied. ‘Oh, he will be a great player for Celtic, go and get him!’ And then he told me when we (Scotland) played Sweden in a World Cup qualifier at Ibrox, at that time for some reason the coach wasn’t picking Larsson. He was picking Martin Dahlin and Tomas Brolin instead. Anyway, Craig said they (his staff) were overjoyed when Larsson wasn’t selected. I was doing the commentary for that game on the BBC and we went 1-0 up, and then they murdered us for the rest of the game. With about half an hour to go I saw Larsson appear in their dugout and said to my co-commentator, ‘Ah no, this is all we need!’ So I certainly rated him, but my opinion on players didn’t matter a great deal back then. I remember when we announced him, there was no great fanfare. No one was that excited, and I was actually criticised for saying ‘This guy’s going to be quite something.’ In fairness, a lot of guys have came to me since and said ‘You were the first person to say that’, but yeah, I believed at the time we had a gem on our hands.
The first team enjoyed a famous bond that was cited as being crucial in winning the title. Why was it not as harmonious off the pitch?
Because there were certain people off the pitch who damaged the situation because they were pursuing personal agendas. Simple as that. The likes of who? Murdo McLeod? David Hay? No, I wouldn’t put Hay in the same bracket. I liked David Hay, he’s a good man. Yeah, he identified a lot of signings who were key in securing the title, didn’t he? Yeah, he did, and I was sad when he left. Very sad. But there were other people with personal agendas being pursued and they had no interest in the club.
I’ve heard a few stories from the likes of Stubbs, McNamara and Kerr about what Paolo di Canio was like as a player, in and around the dressing room and so forth, but what was he like as a man, and how hard was he to negotiate with?
I really don’t know, because I only had one conversation with him can you believe? In that one conversation, allowing for the language issue – his English wasn’t bad mind you – I found him obtuse and awkward. He had no interest in anyone else but Paolo di Canio. In that one conversation he came with his lawyer on a Saturday morning. I had a chat with Paolo for about 15 minutes and we were getting nowhere, so I said ‘bring your man in’. So in came the lawyer, and di Canio left! He went into town or something. He was blatantly breaking his contract, and the lawyer knew that and thus couldn’t do anything about it. In general I think he (di Canio) was unlucky. I think he was very much under the spell of his agents, and I think his agents told him things that weren’t true about what would happen at the end of the season (96/97). Put it this way, Fergus McCann told me what deal was done with him and whatever you want to say about Fergus McCann, one thing he did not do was make up stories. He was straight as a die. He couldn’t understand it either (what happened at the meeting) because he knew that di Canio wasn’t present at all the meetings with his representatives. I felt sad in one way with regards to the player because it would have been good to have him but then again, he was hell-bent on a move to England.
It was a shame then he moved to a club like Sheffield Wednesday. Surely if he had moved to a bigger club, we could have got more money for him?
Well yeah, but they were the only club in for him at that time. No one else came in for him. The only club that wanted to buy him in the Premiership was Sheffield Wednesday. David Pleat (Wednesday’s manager at the time) told me that initially they couldn’t agree terms. Jansen wanted Regi Blinker too and they didn’t want to sell him. So based on that, I told Pleat that the only thing that would make us do a deal with di Canio was Blinker. I never heard from him from a while but they had one or two dodgy results and Pleat, who is a lovely man – I got on very well with him – rang me back and said his chairman wanted a marquee signing. A crowd pleaser. He identified di Canio and said he would even pay over the odds for him, so they did, and gave us Blinker of course. So a good deal, you think? Well there was a lot of arguments about Blinker but one thing is for sure, Blinker was a massively talented footballer. He was a lovely guy, Regi, and had a wonderful left foot, but he had two big problems. He played against Motherwell at Celtic Park in a league game and for the first twenty minutes, Regi took them apart with some of the best wing play I had seen for ages. He created chance after chance, but then someone kicked him. He retaliated and got sent off after twenty-odd minutes. The tragedy was that if he had kept his cool, we would have won the game at a canter, he would have been the star man, his confidence would have flown, and things would have been great. Secondly, we went to Zagreb (Champions League qualifier, August 1998). He had a chance to score the away goal. He was one on one with the goalkeeper, chasing through the centre, and the view back then was that he chickened. He was going to get a sore one, possibly a broken leg, but he would have scored. I remember the crowd at the time in that stadium were livid. It didn’t look good, put it that way. It was one of those ones – through on goal, goalkeeper bearing down on you. If he got there first it would have been a goal and he backed out in the eyes of the crowd.
In your book, you said during your search for a new head coach in summer 1997, you met ‘Mr Z’ in Cyprus. Who was this ‘Mr Z’? Was it Bobby Robson?
I promised ‘Mr Z’ I would never ever, till the day I die, tell anyone who he was.
Was he a high profile manager at that time?
Oh yeah, he was good. Very high profile. But it wasn’t Robson.
Did your fallout with Wim Jansen cloud your own enjoyment of the title win?
I never fell out with Jansen. Did he fall out with me? I don’t know. I liked Jansen. I never stopped liking Jansen. But it did become very difficult to communicate with him because he wouldn’t do anything without a certain guy on his shoulder, and he was totally under the influence of that guy.
I’m guessing this is McLeod again?
Yeah. Jansen wouldn’t turn the corner without him and he engineered that (McLeod), and it became very difficult. If Jansen came in now I’d be very warm. I have no problem with him at all. Whether he’d be like that with me I don’t know, but the communication between us broke down largely because of the outside influence.
Out of the 13 signings you said you were involved in, which one gave you the most pleasure?
Definitely Larsson and Moravcik. Maybe Moravcik even more because I knew he good he was, and I knew no one else knew anything about him. Remember the headline ‘Celtic sign dud Czech’?, which was laughable because he wasn’t even a Czech. I knew in that arena he would be absolutely sensational. I’ll tell you the background to this as it’s quite interesting. Jozef, who is simply the finest man I’ve ever met in my life, and he still is that, said to me ‘Jock, we’ve got a good squad, but a great team has three players who can supply a surprising moment. A good team has got two. We’ve got one. Larsson. We need another one urgently. I think I have an idea of one but we can’t sign him. His name? Lubomir Moravcik.’ He told me all about him, that he plays for Duisburg, played for St Etienne and he’s Slovak etc. So I asked him why we couldn’t sign him. He said that it was because he was from a minor country and he was 33 at the time. We would have been crucified in the press. I remember saying to him, ‘Jozef, will he make our team better?’ And he said ‘If his legs still work, then definitely.’ ‘Will he deliver a surprising moment?’ ‘Definately.’ So I said that I wasn’t interested in any other factors overcoming it. I actually had to persuade him to keep the deal alive until he eventually said ‘Ok, I’ll make some phone calls.’ He found out he was playing for Slovakia against Portugal the following Wednesday night. He told me that he was gettable and it wouldn’t cost a fortune. Duisburg had him playing in the Paul Lambert role in front of the two centre halves and he was very unhappy about that. So we went to Bratislava to watch him in that match at the insistence of Jozef Venglos. I had never heard of the guy before, and I thought I knew my stuff. No one had heard of him, as you know. I didn’t really want to go over there and I told Jozef that. I told him that I wasn’t allowed to have a football opinion, but Jozef insisted. It was a horrible wet day, and Portugal had all their big guns playing, like Rui Costa, Luis Figo etc. They were miles ahead of Slovakia, but little Lubo was everywhere. He captained the team, took every corner, every throw-in, every free kick. After about 15 minutes, my mind was made up. We had to sign him. But Jozef said ‘Hold on. See how his legs hold out over the 90 minutes.’ He was just incredible. This wee guy was unreal! So when we got back to Glasgow we went to work about securing a deal. When I got back all the players were coming up to me saying ‘who is this guy?’ In fact Craig Burley was the first one to ask. He said ‘What position does he play?’ ‘Your position’, I replied! But seriously, umpteen players came up to me asking what he was like and I simply told them ‘he’s training with us on Monday. After Monday, come back to me and you can tell me what he’s like.’ Ten players came back to me, the first one was Lambert. He said ‘He is the best player I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And he’s trained with some class players down the years too…. Absolutely. The others all agreed that Lubo was unbelievable. Meanwhile, all the papers are busy saying what a dumpling he is.
Do you have any regrets about your time at Celtic Park and would you do anything different if you had the chance again?
I don’t regret going there for a minute. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was a great experience. Yes, of course I done some things wrong and I made mistakes but you learn from that. Would I do things differently? Yes. I hired Murdo McLeod and that was a big mistake. I regret that. I then let Fergus to have the job description the way it was. I wish I had fought harder on that. I believed wrongly that I could change his mind once I was in. But by and large, it was a great experience. I loved it.
Of all the head coach and player signings that nearly came off, which one do you wish had of been completed?
Me and Davie Hay identified this guy as an ideal no.2 for Wim Jansen, but of course, Wim Jansen’s got to make that decision, not us. We told him that we had this guy in mind and we would introduce him as soon as Wim’s on board. The guy always said he would kill to come to Celtic, but we couldn’t tell him who the head coach was going to be. So on the day Wim was unveiled, I introduced them to each other and he asked Wim if he was going to be taking training. When Wim said he was, he guy said ‘I don’t think I’m right for the role then, because I’ll just be a bibs and cones man, and I’m past that now.’ At the club he was at before as no.2, the manager wore the Gucci suit and sat in the office while he took training, more or less preparing the team himself. He saw being a no.2 to Jansen as being a step back. We spent the next two and a half hours trying to persuade him. If he had came we would have loved him. Wim even loved him, and he was very keen to have him. So that’s the one who I wish had came. Can you reveal who he was? No. Was he Scottish? Not telling you!
Which one single incident prompted you to say ‘enough is enough’ and leave?
Not one single incident. I left in November 1998, and I told Fergus in the September that I had to go. He tried to get me to stay but I knew it was completely unworkable. Like I said in the book, it got to the stage where it was becoming impossible to do the job. But also because of the media treatment of me, Jozef suffered, and that wasn’t right because you can’t get a finer man than him. Jozef actually told me during our first meeting in Vienna that the team wouldn’t get things right until around about the turn of the year because we had so many players away at France 98, so there’s a decent chance of losing out on the league. And if we aren’t getting results on the pitch, who are the media going to want to blame? Me. But it turns out Jozef was absolutely right. Can you remember the football that was played between the November and March that season? The quality of the play was the best I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t there by then unfortunately, but that’s exactly the picture Jozef painted. That it would take until the turn of the year to get everyone firing on all cylinders, and of course by that stage he had brought in Riseth, Moravcik, Mjallby and Viduka. We really had a hell of a good squad.
The alleged current SFA / media bias towards Celtic has been an underlying theme to the title race this season. Do you think it was like that when you were general manager?
When I was at Celtic? Never. I wasn’t conscious of any bias going on. I disagreed with certain decisions they reached plenty of times, but every club does. I think any alleged bias is fuelled by the newspapers, the messageboards, the phone-ins, and it’s a case of the lowest common denominator. People latch on to that. During the Old Firm game in October, the Broadfoot penalty decision was quite clearly a mistake but I don’t think the ref made the decision out of any ill-feeling towards Celtic. People only remember the calls that went against them, not when they are the ones that get the rub of the green. I don’t necessarily think that it breaks even over the course of the season mind you, but when I was there, I definitely wasn’t conscious of anything untoward, and this was coming after Jim Farry of the SFA had fallen on his sword.
Stewart Kerr told me recently that if you’re in a position of authority at Celtic, and you’re not ‘Celtic-minded’, you’re looked upon with a lot of distrust. Is this a view you share?
(Long pause) What are we talking about here? Are we talking Celtic-minded or are we talking about Catholic?
Celtic Minded. I mean club officials ie. Managers, directors, backroom staff that have no Celtic background or previous affinity at all.
Stewart’s a good guy. I like him. Celtic-minded? That’s why I called my book what I called it. I couldn’t resist the irony of it. When I was announced at the press conference, I was faced with questions such as ‘you’re not a Celtic supporter are you?’ and I told them that I had never in my life been anything other than a Hamilton Accies supporter until this morning, and I’m now the biggest supporter Celtic have ever had, and that will remain the case as long as I’m here. That was absolutely true. When we played the first league game of the season at Easter Road and got beat to Hibs, it ruined my night. Then when we lost at home to Dunfermline the week after I was suicidal. What I can never understand is that you can sign a player such as Chris Sutton from someone like Chelsea, he becomes Celtic-minded from playing and scoring goals. If you’re not a player, you can’t have that privilege so you’re constantly asked the question. I like to think I’m a pro at what I do, as long as I’m working for Celtic, then they’ve got everything I’ve got in me to do well for them, and they did have in all the time I was there. I cared deeply about Celtic throughout my whole time there and it remained for a long time after I left too because while people were still there that I worked with and knew, I was massively sympathetic. Right now there’s hardly anyone left that was there when I was there, and my allegiances are with my family, which makes me an Aberdeen supporter!
Do you still keep in touch with anyone from your days at Celtic then?
Oh yeah, without question. With loads of people, including players. I became friends with Darren Jackson because I was with him through his brain operation, and because of that I’d imagine we’d be friends for a long time. You must see Craig Burley a lot too? Yeah, well he’s based down south now so I don’t see as much of him now, but I’ve got no problem with Craig at all. Apart from that I see the Donnellys and the McNamaras. Guys like Malky Mackay I see every so often. Malky’s a super guy, and I’m delighted to see he’s doing so well at Watford. I see Tommy Johnson too. Great guy, who I thought got a raw deal from Wim by the way. Jonathan Gould, big Marsh, Stubbsy, even the foreign guys like Marc Rieper….a few of them to be fair.
If you could go back in time, what single thing would you change about your time at Celtic?
The job description. I would make sure I wouldn’t be the mouthpiece. I kept telling everyone the mouthpiece has to be the guy that picks the team, but Fergus wanted a foreign coach and for me to do all the talking. No British head coach was considered. Not one. It had to be a foreign guy who understood the head coach-general manager set-up. My view was that we should have changed the job description so that I was not at the forefront of the press coverage. It had to be the guy who picked the team. The belief was that Wim couldn’t do that, in which case we shouldn’t have appointed him on that job description. If he had been able to talk to the press himself it would have been a perfectly good appointment.
The media obviously drove a huge wedge between you and the Celtic support which led to your departure. Have you forgiven certain newspapers and their journalists in the 12 years since?
I don’t want to think about it. I just don’t buy the papers. I sued the Daily Record but that’s the end of it. As for the journalists in question… they’re certainly not guys I’d stop and have a pint with.
Is there any player who we missed out on signing who you felt could have made a huge difference to the team, who then went on to better things at another club instead?
Yes, there is one. Only one, but I can’t name him. Again?! Ha, yes, this deal broke my heart actually. The only reason we didn’t sign him was because Fergus wouldn’t sanction it. Which club did he go to? A big English club. The fans would have went nuts if we had got him. He would have lit the place up. Would he have broken the club transfer record? No, but only because of the age that he was at, which is one of the reasons why Fergus vetoed it. I done a deal to get him here for two years and it was rejected. It was quite expensive but nothing record-breaking. We agreed a deal, I let him go home and think about it. He was to come back the next morning to sign but Fergus stepped in and said no. So, despite his age, he went on to be a big success at this English club? Oh yeah, huge. Huge. It really broke my heart. His club agreed, the agent agreed, but Fergus didn’t. I can remember the numbers in my head vividly. It was a done deal, but we really hit the crossbar with Fergus on that one. It would have been so big, it probably would have changed everything.
Would you like to be remembered as Jock Brown, former Celtic general manager, or Jock Brown, former Scottish football commentator?
I don’t want to remembered as a former anything! That’s for other people to decide. They can make up my mind. I’m more a present and a future man rather than looking to the past.
Keep your eyes peeled with more retro interviews with some big names in Celtic’s history at www.celtsarehere.com.