The Measure of a Man
It was one of those dark winter nights in Glasgow where the dampness and cold seemed to seep right through to your bones. The last echoes of the departing 80,000 football supporters could be heard in the streets around Ibrox and two late goals, one for either side, meant the bragging rights would be shared. Most of those who had watched a tense and dramatic Rangers v Celtic game departed completely unaware of the tragedy unfolding at the stadium. The date was of course 2 January 1971 and 66 souls were lost on that lamentable day. Jock Stein, the manager of Celtic, was seen assisting the injured and too often laying out those beyond assistance. That was the measure of the man. No standing on the side-lines offering pious words, the former miner gave practical help where it was required and cared not a jot for the petty and mindless bigotry which often attached itself to Old Firm games like a poisonous leech.
Even in the exaggerated world of football rivalries, Jock Stein was consistent in his opposition to any prejudice no matter what quarter it came from. Yes, he loved beating Rangers because he knew how much it meant to all Celtic minded people as well as the psychological damage it did to Celtic’s great rivals. He also despised the Ibrox club’s grubby sectarian policy which saw Catholic players excluded from their side for decades. He knew the depths of hatred some held for Celtic, Scotland’s so called ‘Catholic club’ and had experienced the pain of close friends shunning him when he joined the club as a player. There is an apocryphal story that a Rangers fan shouted at him in a Glasgow street, ‘Stein, you only won the European cup because you had 5 Protestants in the team.’ Jock, (a Protestant himself) as quick witted as ever replied, ‘How could you not win it with eleven?’
He was also strong enough to tackle some of his own club’s supporters who stepped over the mark by chanting about things which had nothing to do with football. He once invaded the terraces at Stirling Albion’s little ground and ripped into some Celtic supporters who in his eyes where letting the club down. He reflected upon it in the Celtic view the following week with the words…
"Surely there are enough Celtic songs without introducing religion or politics or anything else?"
Jock recognised early in his career that he wasn’t blessed with greatness as a player but that as a leader of men and a reader of the game, he had few equals. It is said that following a defeat at Ibrox in the early 1950s, Charlie Tully joked that the team might fare better with more Catholics in the side. A furious Stein, had to be restrained by Sean Fallon as he advanced on the hapless Tully. Joke or not, Jock wasn’t having that sort of talk in the dressing room. His morality was moulded in the deep, dark mines of Lanarkshire where men depended on others for their very lives at times. Injuries and fatalities were common in the pits and miners have a loyalty to each other that is deep and abiding. He famously said of those days…
‘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. Wherever I go, whatever work I do, I’ll never work with better men.’
Football offered young Jock Stein a way out of the hard, dangerous world of mining. Celtic fans will know well his journey from Albion Rovers to Llanelli in Wales before eventually returning to play for Celtic. Success returned fleetingly in the mid-1950s in the shape of a league and cup double as well as the Coronation cup but the grand old team was in truth struggling in those post war years. Fate intervened in the shape of an injury which ended his playing career and he found himself coaching Celtic reserves. He demonstrated clearly in his new role that once his ideas about football were imbued into players, they could improve and play football in a more modern, astute way without sacrificing Celtic’s attacking principles. He took the time to study the great sides of the era like Real Madrid and the Hungarian national side, learning from them. His talents were soon noticed and Dunfermline secured him as their first team manager. They rose up the table and defeated Celtic in the 1961 Cup Final as Stein proved his worth. Teams such as Valencia and Everton were defeated in Europe and Scottish football woke up to the fact that an excellent young manager was emerging. His next stop was Easter Road and again, his methods led to a struggling side turning their fortunes around. Hibs won the summer cup and defeated Real Madrid 2-0 in a high profile challenge match watched by 30,000 delighted fans. This after the Scottish media predicted a humiliating hammering for Hibs. Meanwhile in Glasgow, Celtic toiled in the league and despite producing bright young players remained very much a sleeping giant.
Much has been written about Celtic’s attempts to lure their former skipper back to Celtic Park. Bob Kelly, the rather autocratic Chairman at the time, offered him a post as Sean Fallon’s second in command. Stein refused. He was then offered a joint manager’s post and again refused. There was no doubting that he wanted the Celtic job but it must come with no strings attached. He must be in sole charge and have no interference from Chairman Bob Kelly. Stein then cleverly let it be known that Wolves, a big team at the time, had approached him to fill the vacant manager’s job there. This forced Kelly’s hand and Jock Stein was appointed Celtic Manager in early 1965.
Sean Fallon, who had been a team mate of Stein’s in the 1950s had appointed Jock his vice-captain, despite some sneering from players like Tully who thought Jock too old. Fallon stated…
"My closest friend in the team was Bertie Peacock but I chose Jock over him mainly because I wanted to prove to the others lads that players his age weren't washed up."
Sean Fallon reacted to Stein being appointed Manager in 1965 with the sort of grace we have come to expect from that Celtic legend. He recalls Jock inviting him to a Hibs game against Aberdeen in early 1965 and recounts that his loyalty in the 1950s hadn’t been forgotten…
"Jock phoned and asked me to come over and see him one night. Hibs were playing at home to Aberdeen. 'You know I'm coming as manager,' he said, 'and I know you'll be disappointed. But I want to reciprocate for you making me your deputy (in the 1950s) by asking you to become my assistant'.
The two friends went on to become the most successful managerial team in Celtic’s history. Fallon knew what was best for the club he held so dear and above all his personal ambition knew that Jock Stein would revitalise Celtic. He said in later years..
‘They thought it might be a problem the fact that I was ear marked for the Manager’s job at that time. But it wasn’t, and a better man couldn’t have got the job – as he proved.’
Stein’s Celtic set off on a journey which saw them scale the heights in Europe and dominate Scottish football for a decade. He fought Celtic’s corner with the media, the footballing authorities and referees. He took a toiling club and applied the methodologies of modern football management to it with startling success. At a time when Scottish clubs such as Hibs, Dundee, Rangers, Aberdeen and even Dunfermline possessed powerful sides, he totally dominated the Scottish football scene. Above all of this he made Celtic a name to be respected in European football. For all of these achievements and for a thousand other things he is still revered by Celtic fans 30 years after his death. Hugh McIlvanney, journalist of great repute, said of Stein…
‘Nobody ever read football or footballers more perceptively than Stein, or brought greater inspiration to devising ways of winning the most competitive matches. And nobody ever made the game and its associated activities more enjoyable. Limited education could not obscure the scope of his intelligence or the power of his intellect.’
Many are called ‘great’ in the world of football but how many actually deserve such lavish praise? Jock Stein assuredly does as he ushered in not only a golden era for his beloved Celtic but also a golden era for attacking football. His sides played with such verve and skill. They entertained the fans and played in that great Celtic attacking tradition stretching back to 1888 when Neil McCallum headed home Dumbar’s corner against Rangers to score Celtic’s first ever goal.
In memory’s view I can see Johnstone weaving his magic, Murdoch and Auld pinging the ball with precision to the jet propelled Lennox or the astute Chalmers. McNeil and Clark defending as if their lives depended on it and Gemmell and Craig acting like auxiliary wingers. All the while Jock was there in the background, growling like an impatient conductor who always thought the orchestra could give a little more. He drove them to heights they could scarce imagine when he walked in the door in 1965 and we who follow Celtic will be forever in his debt.
Jock Stein, Celtic Legend. When will we see your like again?