It was obvious to anyone who knew him that Jock Stein didn’t just come to Celtic Park in 1965 to manage the football club; he came to battle for them too. One revealing story concerns a loose lipped reporter who upon seeing a helicopter land on the centre spot at a crowded Hampden Park as part of the pre-match entertainment said, ‘If that thing crashes, I hope it’s on the Celtic end.’ Word of this comment got back to Stein and after the game he hunted the hack down and pinning him to the wall, delivered a verbal thrashing which had the man quivering in fear. Jock was not a man to be trifled with.
His on-going war with BBC Scotland and its Head of Sports, Peter Thompson, was the stuff of legend. Thompson, nicknamed ‘Blue Peter’ by Stein had helped foster a sectarian atmosphere around the BBC Sports team in Scotland and Archie McPherson recalled in his autobiography that as a young reporter he had listened to Thompson and his cronies discussing Catholics in a derogatory manner and stating that you could spot one by the way they pronounced certain words. Archie also stated that if an earthquake were to swallow Celtic Park Thompson wouldn’t shed one tear. Stein, a proud Celtic player, captain and manager got up the noses of bigots like Thompson not just because he was a Protestant at the so called Catholic club in Scotland, but because he brought Celtic huge success and delighted in rubbing the bigots’ noses in the dirt. The BBC changed its ways in the end and old school bigots like Thompson were on the way out as Stein took Celtic to greatness.
Stein knew rejection from friends during his playing days when he signed for Celtic. He once walked past some of the erstwhile pals from his home town of Burnbank who were giving him the cold shoulder and muttered to a real friend, Sean Fallon… ‘Fuck them.’ He later admitted that he had lost friends when he joined Celtic but said tellingly, ‘If that’s what matters to them then they’re not really friends at all.’’ He would often say in public that you get the same points for beating Rangers that you get for beating any other team but ask any of his players what it meant to him when they defeated the Ibrox club and they’ll tell you it delighted him no end. Not only because of the psychological damage it did to the Rangers team but because it also riled the bigoted element. In one of his first encounters with Rangers as Celtic manager in the 1965 League cup final he warned his players not to be bullied but to let Rangers know that a new, tough Celtic had arrived. They duly flew into tackles, snarled and clawed their way to a 2-1 victory. In the 1969 Scottish Cup Final as Celtic toyed with Rangers for the last 30 minutes, Stein would have been satisfied that Celtic not only gave them a lesson in football that day but also saw his team stand up to what one commentator called Rangers’ ‘Storm tactics.’ The days of being bullied were over when the big man walked in the door.
Jock took on Celtic’s enemies from whatever quarter they came. The press and TV were regularly on the receiving end of his sharp tongue. He was asked once to predict the outcome of an upcoming match and replied, ‘Predicting scores is a mug’s game- I’ll leave that to Alex Cameron.’ Cameron, the host of Scotsport at the time and keen Rangers fan was not amused. Referees he considered to be less than fair to his side were often subjected to his caustic tongue and there is no doubt he didn’t count quiet acceptance of poor decisions as one of his virtues.
Jock’s values were honed in the dangerous world of the coal mines where a man trusted his comrades with his life. The pits were dirty, dangerous places where all manner of accidents and illnesses were common. He saw in those formative years how men with complete trust in each other could function as a unit and achieve more. Bill Shankly said that his ability to get the best out of each player within the framework of the team was ‘a form of socialism.’ Stein’s teams were marked by their cohesiveness and the way players looked after each other on and off the pitch. This was illustrated when he convinced 11 pale Scots that they were the match for the superstars of Inter Milan in 1967. When asked what message he had for Inter Manager Herrera two days before that final in Lisbon he replied…
"I am now going to tell Herrera how Celtic will be the first team to bring the European Cup back to Britain. But it will not help him in any manner, shape or form: we are going to attack as we have never attacked before. Cups are not won by individuals, but by men in a team who put their club before personal prestige. I am lucky - I have the players who do just that for Celtic."
Stein’s teams played with a verve and belief in themselves which marked them out as among the greatest these islands have produced. 25 major trophies in 12 full seasons at the helm rightly suggest he is the greatest manager in Scottish football history. To reach 5 European semi-finals, two finals and win the Champions cup in the space of 8 years is astonishing given the financial disparity between Scottish football and the so called giants of European football.
His actions at the time of the Ibrox disaster showed his human side. Photographs taken on that gloomy and lamentable night show a burly figure helping with the dead and injured on the track at Ibrox. Much as he detested the bigotry which attaches itself to some supporters, he also saw that some things are far more important that football or its tribalism. He said in 1971…
"This terrible tragedy must help to curb the bigotry and bitterness of Old Firm matches. When human life is at stake this kind of hatred seems sordid and little. Fans of both sides will never forget this disaster."
It is sadly ironic that a minority of supporters of the club in Govan cannot see the humanity of Stein’s actions on that day in 1971 and choose instead to abuse his memory. Nor did Jock spare Celtic fans when he felt they were out of order. When rebel songs were sung at a League Cup tie in Stirling in the early 1970s, Stein actually entered the crowd and told supporters to stop it. In the following week’s Celtic View he asked… ‘Surely there are enough Celtic songs without introducing religion, politics or anything else?’ Stein acted then, as he always did, in what he perceived to be the best interests of Celtic. Whether it was the biased elements of the media, the SFA, Referees or a misguided minority of our own support, Jock was never slow to challenge those who through words or actions harmed Celtic. In the hours after his greatest triumph he opened his heart on what he and his team had achieved and what it meant to him, to Celtic and indeed to football…
"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."
Winning with style is how those of us who saw Stein’s Celtic will remember them. They played it the right way. They played it the Celtic way.
Jock Stein fought a thousand battles for the club he loved and made them a name all over the world. When the history books are written about Celtic there are three names which will tower above all others. They are Brother Walfrid, Willie Maley and the indomitable Jock Stein.
‘Pure, beautiful, inventive football…’ It sure was.