Saturday, 8 August 2015

A big heart and a fighting spirit

A big heart and a fighting spirit

The two old friends sat at the familiar table in the restaurant they’d met at so many times in the past. Sean and Jock would often sit in Ferraris after training with Celtic to discuss tactics and how to approach opponents they were to face in the coming week. Often their friend and team mate Bertie Peacock would join them in their discussions about football. It was something the coaching staff at Celtic Park sadly neglected in those days. Sean Fallon held great affection and respect for Stein, the man he worked alongside with to bring such glory to Celtic in that golden era of the 1960s and 70s. He had accepted Stein when he arrived at Celtic as an older player and had even made him Vice-Captain.  He reflected on those long talks about football he had with Jock back in the 1950s and saw that even then Jock was thinking about the game and how it should be played. He recounted with poignancy the last time he saw his great friend...

"A week before Jock died we were down south for a game and he was just the same as all those years before in Ferrari's, telling me this player and that player wouldn't make it and asking what I thought. I miss those conversations."

Sean Fallon often said that playing for Celtic was a dream come true for him. He actually took a pay cut to come to Celtic Park such was his love of the club and Jimmy McGrory secured his services for the princely wage of £10 per week. For Fallon however, money was not the prime motivator and he said with that straight talking honesty he was famous for…

 "I can never hope to find words to express my feelings at becoming a member of the Celtic Football Club."

His arrival at Celtic during a difficult time for the club was well received despite an own goal in one of his fist matches. It was obvious to the knowledgeable denizens of the ‘Jungle’ that the Sligo man would run through the proverbial brick wall for his team. Not that physicality was all he had to offer, Fallon could play the game too. The Celtic support know their football and recognised in Fallon a kindred spirit, a man for whom Celtic meant as much as it did to those who stood in all weathers watching the team. His time as a player at Celtic was characterised by the team’s occasional brilliance and frequent incompetence. Bob Kelly, a man who cared deeply about Celtic and its traditions, would often interfere in team matters rather than hire a modern coach with progressive ideas to mould the talented players into an effective unit. Manager, Jimmy McGrory, was too much of an introvert and gentleman to take the hard decisions needed to make Celtic successful and dominant again in Scotland.

For Sean Fallon the 2-1 victory over Rangers in September 1952 wasn’t one he greeted with much enthusiasm. Yes, Celtic had played well and Fallon, thrown in at Centre Forward, had approached the tough Rangers defence with his customary courage, but the atmosphere around the club at the time was sombre. Promising young Celtic player, Jackie Millsopp, had taken ill with appendicitis and had tragically died. His funeral had been on the morning of the game and the whole Celtic squad had attended. To their credit, so to had many of the Rangers team they would face later the same day. Such events put football into perspective and for a man of principle like Sean Fallon, football was a distant second to the tragedy which befell the young lad who had been his cabin-mate on the ship taking the team to their American tour of 1951. He recounted those times in Stephen Sullivan’s excellent book; Sean Fallon; Celtic’s Iron Man, with the words…

‘’That was a dreadful time. Jackie had been taken ill with appendictitis but everyone thought he’d recover. It was a terrible shock when he didn’t make it. I’m not afraid to say that I shed a few tears. It’s hard to believe we had an Old Firm match the same day as his funeral itself, but what happened to Jackie ended up bringing us together.’’

Fallon had had to deal with several incidents in his career which tested his mettle. His had agreed to represent Northern Ireland at international level in the days before FIFA stepped in to stop the two associations in Ireland capping players from all over the island. Indeed many players were capped by both associations and this muddle couldn’t go on. Fallon was of the opinion that there should be one team on the island of Ireland and suggested that the rugby boys had it right. However he had given his word and when the letter informing him of his selection arrived, he was ready to accept. News from back home in Sligo however soon perturbed him. Threats had been made against his family home and despite his father urging him to defy the ‘hoodlums’ Fallon wasn’t there to protect his family. It is an example of the tensions in Ireland at the time that sport was being dragged into politics again. In the end Fallon didn’t play for the north and his international future would be with the Irish Republic.

His principles also shone through after defeat at Ibrox when Charlie Tully’s stupid and crass remark about there being ‘Too many Protestants in the team’ looked set to cause a fist fight in the dressing room. Sean took no sides and restrained Stein from taking justifiable retribution on Tully. He said of that particular event…

‘Charlie wasn’t normally that kind of person but was obviously frustrated that day and came out with a stupid, unfair comment. You shouldn’t forget he had been brought up in Belfast which was very divided back then but there was still no excuse for what he said. At the time he was looking to me to back him up as a fellow Catholic but there was no chance of that. I had nothing but respect for the Protestants in our team and one of the things I admired most about Celtic was that unlike Rangers we signed players from every background.’

Sean Fallon was a tough, no nonsense player and took those qualities into management when he and his great friend Jock Stein led Celtic so brilliantly for over a decade. But he approached life and indeed football with the same principles of fairness and respect. Opponents talked of a tough competitor with a ferocious tackle but not one ever called him a dirty player. He would be the first to shake an opponent’s hand when the battle was over. His contribution to Celtic as a player, Manager, Scout and of course as Jock Stein’s assistant Manager was immense. But just as important to his contribution on the field and in the dugout was his example to others. For men like Fallon you could love your team without hating others. You could give your all without resorting to underhand tactics. The fans understood that and they respected him for it. He was one of them, not in any narrow sectarian sense, but rather he was a man who saw the best virtues of this remarkable football club and did all he could to foster them. For Fallon Celtic had thrived because they were open, inclusive and tried to play the game the right way. For some, Celtic’s incredible success when he and Jock guided the side to 25 major trophies and made them Champions of Europe  would have been enough. But for Fallon and Stein, the manner the of the team’s achievements was just as important. They did it with style, they did it with exciting attacking football. They did it the Celtic way.

"I was just an ordinary player with a big heart and a fighting spirit to recommend me."  (Sean Fallon)

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