John, You’re a Celtic Man…
You may not be familiar with the name John Batters but we of the Celtic persuasion may owe the 98 year old a quiet word of thanks. In the 1950s and 60s Mr Batters was the Doctor at Hibernian Football Club when a certain John Stein was mulling over an offer from Bob Kelly to become Celtic Manager. He asked John Batters what he thought he should do. He could stick it out for a few years yet at Hibs who were starting to play some excellent football or take a chance and return to Celtic where he made his name as a player? Dr Batters was quite clear on the course of action Stein should take and replied…’ John you’re a Celtic man, you should go or you’ll regret it.’ Stein’s wife Jean was less sure but the good Doctor persuaded her too that it was right for Stein to head west to the club he had served so well as a player and which he clearly still had great affection for. Once Jock had made his terms clear to Bob Kelly and the Chairman had agreed to Stein having complete control over the team, Stein agreed to take over at Celtic Park and the rest is history.
Jock Stein was not a man to be trifled with. His hard life in the Lanarkshire coal mines taught his self-reliance, loyalty but also the need to put his trust in others. He once said…’
"You go down that pit shaft, a mile underground. You can’t see a thing. The guy next to you, you don’t know who he is. Yet he is the best friend you will ever have."
Alex Ferguson recalled that during the miners’ strike of 1984 Stein saw lorry loads of ‘Scab’ coal on the move and stopped them with the withering words…’I hope you’re proud of yourselves, you’re doing people out of a living.’ Solidarity was important to a man who knew the hardships involved in the mining industry. He went out of his way to donate to the miners’ hardship fund as that bitter strike of 1984 dragged on and Thatcher stopped any welfare relief to the families of struggling miners. Jock’s whole working life had been mining and football and both demanded teamwork and loyalty. He also knew the pain of being snubbed as a younger man by people he had known for years in Burnbank because they saw his playing for Celtic in the 1950s as akin to treason. This increased when he became Celtic manager and shattered Rangers domination of Scottish football. He would shake his head at any pettiness or bigotry he endured and would mumble to Sean Fallon his lifelong friend, ‘Fuck them!’ Jock had no time for bigotry, recognising that the miners who trusted each other with their lives each day didn’t question your faith or politics. They were all comrades and that’s what mattered if they were going to safely finish their shift a mile underground and get home in one piece.
Jock was bringing all of those life experiences and attitudes to Celtic Park in the early spring of 1965 at a time when Celtic needed it. Billy McNeil, upon hearing that Stein was returning said, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic! Let’s see how this will change now!’ Change it did as Stein made every player aware that second best was no longer good enough. Unlike the gentlemanly Jimmy McGrory, Stein was often in his track suit at training barking out orders, working with the ball, demonstrating new routines for free kicks and new tactical approaches. He was always inventive, always looking to improve the tactical approach to the game. He had travelled to Wembley in 1953 to watch the brilliant Hungarians destroy England 6-3 and his eyes were opened. Such brilliant attacking play was the way the game should be played. Individual flair and skill was blended into a flexible but essentially attacking team plan to great effect. The stunned English team, convinced the Wembley drubbing was a fluke, headed to Budapest the following year to seek revenge and were again destroyed. This time by a score that would in later years have made Jock smile, it was 7-1. Stein had also watched Real Madrid rout an excellent Eintracht Frankfurt team at Hampden by 7-3 in 1960 and again saw that the future of football lay in attack. He once said that while it’s important to win a match, what was equally important was the manner in which you win.’
As he looked around the Celtic dressing room in the spring of 1965 he would have seen keen young students such as McNeil, Chalmers, Auld, Murdoch and Johnstone ready to learn from the master. What heights could he attain with this raw young team? How far could he implement his dream of dominating the game by the application of attacking play? The next decade was to prove that Stein to be the greatest manager in the history of the Scottish game. Not only did his team sweep all opposition in Scotland aside with verve and skill, they also competed at the highest level in European football for a decade reaching 4 European Cup semi-finals and two finals. If the zenith of his achievement was that stunning destruction of the ultra-defensive Inter Milan in Lisbon, it cannot be disguised that such displays from Celtic were commonplace in that golden era. His mantra was clear as he spoke to the team before that historic final in Lisbon….
"If you're ever going to win the European Cup, then this is the day and this is the place. But we don't just want to win this cup, we want to do it playing good football - to make neutrals glad we've won it, glad to remember how we did it. We must play as if there are no more games, no more tomorrows…’’
By God they did play as if there were no more games. Inter were destroyed that golden day and Stein’s approach to the game vindicated. Astute football fans the world over remember the great teams because they played the game in the correct manner. Stein’s team stands tall among them. He said in the afterglow of his Lisbon triumph…
"There is not a prouder man on God's Earth than me at this moment. Winning was important, aye, but it was the way that we have won that has filled me with satisfaction. We did it by playing football. Pure, beautiful, inventive football. There was not a negative thought in our heads. Inter played right into our hands; it's so sad to see such gifted players shackled by a system that restricts their freedom to think and to act. Our fans would never accept that sort of sterile approach. Our objective is always to try to win with style."
Stein was right of course, there has been since the earliest history of the club a definable ‘Celtic way’ of playing the game. His team played football in the best traditions of the club and McGrory, Tully, Patsy Gallagher or Willie Maley would have approved. Jock Stein, the boyhood Rangers fan made the modern Celtic. He forged the club an identity beyond Scotland which endures to this day. It could be argued that along with Brother Walfrid and Willie Maley, Jock is the most important figure in the club’s history. I leave the last words of this blog to two men who wore the blue of our great rivals. Alex Ferguson, a man who learned a huge amount from Jock Stein, said of him…
"I am proud to say that I knew Jock Stein as a manager, as a colleague and as a friend... he was the greatest manager in British football... men like Jock will live forever in the memory."
Jock Wallace, a man steeped in the traditions of Rangers FC, was also a man who recognised Stein’s greatness. He had no doubt watched the Celtic manager help the dead and dying after the dreadful disaster at Ibrox in 1971 and recognised his common decency and humanity. He also had respect for Stein’s achievements on the field and said of big Jock...
"Jock Stein was the greatest manager ever to draw breath. There was no one who came anywhere close to him."
Stein would no doubt smile at such praise and point to the players who achieved the victories as the people due the praise, but for all his modesty this astute and intelligent football manager was worthy of all the praise heaped on him. The people who mattered to him were the ordinary Celtic fans and he once said of them…’ "I'm happy where I am, I like the people I work with, I like the players and the directors of this club but most of all I like the fans and to see them happy makes me happy." No one in the history of Celtic FC made the fans as happy as Jock Stein did. The big Miner from Burnbank dragged the club he loved from mediocrity and restored it to greatness. He did so without compromising the principles of attractive attacking football the club had been renowned for. Indeed, he took Celtic to new heights of brilliance and success and for that we will be eternally grateful.
Doctor Batters had urged Jock Stein to go to Celtic in early 1965 with the words… ’ John you’re a Celtic man, you should go or you’ll regret it.’ Every Celtic fan is delighted that Mr Stein listened to him and followed his dream of changing football forever. He changed Celtic forever too and said once to Archie McPherson, ‘We all end up yesterday’s men in this business, all end up forgotten.’
Trust me Jock, as long as Celtic Football Club exists no one will ever forget you and your magnificent team.