Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Touch of Steel…

Celtic’s Chairman Bob Kelly tapped on the Hampden dressing room door and entered. His new Manager had made it clear that team matters were his concern and that the interfering the previous Manager, Jimmy McGrory, had put up with from Kelly was not something he would accept. Jock Stein however, still had respect for Kelly and called the players to hush as the Chairman addressed them…

‘‘Now boys, today you’re representing the Celtic Football Club here at Hampden Park. The eyes of the sporting world will be upon you. Play fair and be sporting to your opponents and respectful of the referee at all times. I don’t want anyone booked or bringing any disrepute on to those famous shirts. Good luck to you all and win, lose or draw play it the Celtic way.’’

Stein thanked Kelly quietly as he ushered the club Chairman out of the dressing room door. He closed the door behind him and turned to face his team. They stood in silence as Stein’s eyes slowly moved along the line of green and white clad players. Then he growled at them in his familiar commanding voice…

‘Forget that crap right now! Every one of you has a job to do. You’ll be up against determined opponents used to bullying and bossing Celtic, well it fucking stops today! The first tackle you have with your immediate opponent is crucial. Go right through the bastard, let him know he’s in for a game. We won’t be bullied any more. This is the new Celtic, we can play football but we can scrap too if that’s what they want. Any of you not going into tackles with the right degree of conviction will be on the transfer list next week and I’ll tell any manager interested in in buying you that you’re a shite bag. Do I make myself clear? Now get out there and win this cup.’

The Celtic v Rangers League cup final of October 1965 before a crowd of over 100,000, began with a shrill blast of the Referee’s whistle. Rangers fed winger Willie Johnstone, often the scourge of Celtic and he raced towards full back Ian Young. Young, no doubt remembering Stein’s words, thundered into Johnstone with the sort of tackle which says; ‘Welcome to the game pal, you’re going to have to earn it today!’ Johnstone was left in a crumpled heap on the Hampden turf and Stein’s team had sent out their message loud and clear. Celtic’s physicality that day was augmented by the pace and skill of Lennox, Auld, Johnstone, Hughes and others who would soon go on to conquer Europe. A rattled Rangers gave away two penalties that afternoon and found their stern tackles and manhandling of Celtic players were returned with interest. Bob Kelly may have looked on from the centre stand with concern that his team was rather rough that autumn day. But Jock Stein had added a touch of steel that was badly required by the Celtic teams of the era. He knew that before the match could be won, the personal battles on the pitch needed to be won first. Celtic’s days of being pushed around by Rangers were over.

As Celtic celebrated by parading the cup around Hampden after the game, defeat was too much for some Rangers fans to take. They poured onto the field and assaulted some of the Celtic players, although a few of them were shocked to discover that Stein’s Celts would hit them back too if required. The SFA banned laps of honour for years afterwards. Those years were to be the most successful in Celtic’s history and thus their fans were denied the pleasure of seeing the players parade the many cups won in that golden era.

That League Cup final of almost 50 years ago was won by Celtic and signaled the dawn of a new era in Scottish football. Celtic, so long the underachievers and nearly men had at last found a manager who brought tactical awareness, man management skills and motivation to bear on a talented group of young players and made them believe they were the best. No one dared come off the field to face Stein having given less than 100%.  They set out on a remarkable journey under Stein which would reap 25 major honours in 12 seasons as well as cementing Celtic’s place as one of the greatest European teams of the era. Later in Stein’s reign as the Lisbon team broke up men like David Hay, Jim Brogan and even Kenny Dalglish continued to play excellent attacking football but would still be able to stand up to any physical treatment their opponents could throw at them. Celtic had learned a hard lesson in the barren years before Stein’s arrival. In professional football, the nice guys are often second best. Stein had ensured that as well as excellent players, he sent out street wise and tough competitors to face the rigours of Scottish and European football.

Some felt that the hard days of the early 1990s saw a return to the ‘soft Celtic’ of the early 1960s.  McStay and Collins played excellent football at times but Rangers unleashed the raw muscle of players such as John Brown, Ian Ferguson and Terry Hurlock on them. They bullied them and forced results for Rangers which their play often didn’t merit. No one can deny the talents of Laudrup and Gascoigne but they were free to express themselves because the less talented enforcers dominated their opponents physically. It took Celtic a long time to develop a team which combined the skill and toughness required to win the title again and we endured 9 bleak years. Much as he is disliked by some Celtic fans today, Craig Burley added some much needed steel to Celtic in that pivotal 1997-98 season. As Celtic battled so hard to stop the ‘Ten’ and preserve a piece of Celtic history I recall him putting Gascoigne on his ass and snarling at him with unmistakable aggression in one game. Reiper, Boyd, McNamara, Weighorst and even Larsson showed they were up for the fight that season and that attitude helped win the title back. Martin O’Neil recognised the need for a physically strong team too and combined skill with a strong will to win. Don’t doubt that O’Neil’s team could play excellent football, they could, but they could mix it with the best when required.

This summer Neil Lennon faces losing some of his star players in the transfer window. It is common sense to let Hooper move on if he so desires as a few quid now is better than nothing next year. Wanyama, Forster and possibly even Joe Ledley will be tempted by the money and prestige of the EPL. If some or all of them leave then it’s important that players of equal ability and stature replace them. The Champions League experience made Celtic millions of pounds this season and there is no excuse in not reinvesting some of that money and any transfer funds received on players who will excite the fans and help Celtic to continue to dominate in Scotland and compete in Europe. Any new arrivals had best learn quickly that success in Scotland isn’t just a matter of skill. It requires heart, guts and a desire to win. We begin our quest for Champions League football in July so the new Bhoys need to hit the ground running.  The thoughts of Jock Stein should still echo around the modern, luxurious dressing rooms of Celtic Park...

This is the new Celtic, we can play football but we can scrap too if that’s what they want.'

The new Bhoys had best learn that fast for the fans won’t accept anything less.


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