Jock Stein: the ordinary man who was anything but

Jock Stein: the ordinary man who was anything but

This feature is part of The Masterminds

“EVERY MANAGER DIES a little during a game. I’d rather die in a dug-out than moulder away in a director’s box.” Jock Stein, speaking in 1978.

Many football fans don’t even know the story. Jock Stein, the giant of Scottish football management, died while watching a game of football. It happened during Scotland’s decisive World Cup 1986 qualifier with Wales on September 10, 1985, at Ninian Park in Cardiff. It was far from a rosy period for British football, with English clubs being banned from competing in Europe due to the Heysel Stadium disaster. However, Scotland stood on the precipice of qualifying for their fourth successive World Cup, requiring only a draw against Wales.

Davie Cooper, a late substitute, had struck a crucial penalty nine minutes from time as the Tartan Army strode purposefully towards the Promised Land. When the final whistle blew, you would have expected a seismic roar from the Scots. What emerged was growing panic and confusion as reports of Stein’s collapse in the dugout immediately preceding the game’s conclusion came through in dribs and drabs.

It soon became clear; Jock Stein, the giant of Scottish football who defied the odds to bring European Cup glory to Celtic, had passed away.

It was a night that was remembered for the wrong reasons. Across the nation, groups gathered around their respective television sets, praying that an injury-ravaged Scotland could overcome perhaps the most talented Welsh side there’s ever been. Scotland needed only a point to progress to a playoff and meet the winner of the Oceania group, but it was a tough ask against Mike England’s Dragons, especially without Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish who had both been ruled out.

Scotland struggled with the physical presence of Mark Hughes, and it showed – the striker opened the scoring in the 13th minute with a characteristically deadly finish. Stein was sweating profusely on the touchline, but not from his faith being tested. He hadn’t been feeling well before the game, complaining of a cough, but no ailment was going to stop him from taking charge of one of the most important and pressure-packed games of his distinguished managerial career.

During the game, Stein was his usual animated self. He remonstrated flamboyantly towards the players, exasperated at losing possession or making a poor decision. Then, Cooper rifled home the penalty to make it 1-1. As it stood, Scotland were going through. The photographers, huddled around the dugouts in their dozens, steadily shuffled over to Stein’s area once they realised that Scotland were going to win. Trying to focus on the nerve-shredding final exchanges of the game, Stein was infuriated by their presence.

Like a fly you can never seem to catch, they invaded his periphery and swatted them away with no shortage of venom. He sat back down on the bench and checked the time, knowing that the final whistle was imminent. Then he collapsed. The medical team had the necessary emergency equipment but were unable to resuscitate him and, with that, the Lion of Scottish football was gone, at the age of 62.

The players and coaching staff were shaken with disbelief. Graeme Souness had been suspended for the match and couldn’t bear the tension from watching in the stands. He was in a small VIP room having a drink with Scottish FA secretary Ernie Walker. The two waited for the game to be over but overheard a commentator on television report the collapse of Stein. Walker rushed into the medical room to see him. He emerged a few moments later and solemnly shook his head to Souness. The players didn’t know how to react. Gordon Strachan had always held an image of Stein as being indestructible, that’s the sort of impact he had on the players.

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He was a colossal manager in the context of Scottish football, one third of the legendary Scottish triumvirate that was completed by the towering figures of Bill Shankly and Sir Matt Busby. What Shankly did for Liverpool and Busby for Manchester United, Stein did for Celtic and Scotland as a nation. Tony Queen, a lifelong friend of Stein’s who grew up with him in Burnbank, South Lanarkshire, said of him: “For an ordinary guy, he was extraordinary.”

A truer word couldn’t possibly be uttered about Stein. He came from humble beginnings and a working-class family that shaped him closer towards being a coal miner than a footballer. Stein worked in the coal mines, yes, but he was always dreamed of swapping the black for the green. His father had clear footballing ambitions for Stein but he never had the most illustrious of playing careers, turning out for Albion Rovers, Llanelli Town and Celtic. Of course, it was in the dugout for the latter club he propelled the club to the greatest period in its long and hallowed history.

Stein was a force to be reckoned with long before he joined Celtic as manager. He had won the Scottish Cup in 1961 with Dunfermline Athletic and led The Pars into the European Cup. Stein was becoming known as one of the most impressive managerial minds in Scotland, further establishing his reputation by beating Everton over two legs and sending shockwaves across Spain when his side demolished Valencia 6-2.

He shocked Dunfermline in leaving for the capital and Hibernian, in March 1964. During his brief but memorable time at Easter Road, Stein transcended expectations, weaving his magic and instantly transforming the fortunes of the club that had been languishing in mid-table prior to his arrival.

Under Stein’s tutelage, Hibs was a force once again in Scottish football. Stein’s active approach in training sessions had rubbed off on the players; they played for him and he coached for them. What was a collection of under-performing players proceeded to become one of the most exhilarating outfits in Scotland under the affectionate banner of ‘Stein’s Stunners’. Willie Hamilton, a talented midfielder who struggled with drinking and gambling addictions, experienced a dramatic upturn in fortunes under Stein. Indeed, Stein guided Hibs to the Summer Cup in 1964, beating Aberdeen in the final and capturing the club’s first trophy in ten years.

What Stein had done at Dunfermline was eye-opening but what he’d managed to achieve at Hibs in such a restricted period of time was nothing short of astonishing. He had arrived with great promise and duly delivered, bringing an aura of triumph to the capital and finally restoring one of the great Scottish clubs to powerhouse status.

Stein restored an electric feel to the air at Easter Road and even gave the club a moment to forever cherish when they invited the mighty Real Madrid for a friendly game, which Hibs won 2-0 in front of a crowd of 32,000. Los Blancos arrived with the likes of Ferenc Puskás in their side but the crowd were instead enraptured with the precocious talents of Hamilton, who bobbed and weaved his way through the Madrid defenders with frightening ease at times.

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Stein had got this Hibs side purring and Real Madrid’s scalp only boosted his prestige around the world of football. Hugh Taylor, a Scottish journalist for the Daily Record, hailed Stein as the ‘Merlin of football’, who oversaw a glittering team skill, power and tenacity. What Stein had achieved at Dunfermline and Hibs were outstanding achievements in their own right, but his extraordinary mind exacted focus on even greater things.

He personally approached Celtic chairman Bob Kelly to seek advice on whether he should become the new Wolverhampton Wanderers manager or not. However, what Stein really wanted was the Celtic managerial post, taking over from Sean Fallon. It required some offers, counter-offers and much deliberation but, on January 31, 1965, it was announced that Stein would leave Hibs at the end of the season to join Celtic.

A feeling of grief reverberated around the capital’s streets. Hibs were losing their warrior but Stein was destined to one day return to the club he played for and coached during his formative years as a tactician. At that time, Stein was ready to control his destiny. He had forged an impressive managerial beginning, now it was the time to become a legend.

Not dissimilar to Hibernian, Celtic were in a state of decline when Stein arrived. They could at times be a fiery and exhilarating team to watch, but hadn’t won a major trophy since 1957. On Stein’s first day in charge, he gathered the players and spoke to them in a calm and measured fashion, explaining that, under him, fortunes would change if they worked hard and played as a team, stressing this last point with particular emphasis. Stein was noted for having an infamously volcanic temper and the Celtic players thought they were getting a front-row seat to watching the big man fly off the handle. In fact, the opposite happened. Stein, knowing full well that the main priority was to first gain the trust of the players, not to incite fear and contempt, instantly captured their hearts and minds.

From that point he set about making his presence felt. Stein’s approach to coaching was revolutionary and exciting for the players. Around that time, Celtic had embraced the ‘show up and play’ methodology that was clearly getting them nowhere, but Stein introduced detailed tactical analyses, which instilled in his players a greater understanding of how football works and of how it should be played. Stein broke games down, illustrated different formations, analysed the opponents and highlighted common mistakes running through the Celtic team. Stein hated repeating himself; his instructions and tutorials were intensely detailed and rapid. The players were captivated by what he had to say about the game. They listened carefully, absorbed the information and, most importantly, practised it out on the pitch.

Like he had been at Dunfermline and Hibs, Stein could be found in the middle of a group of players on the training ground, encouraging, instructing and even joining in with the banter. In the 1965-66 season, Stein guided Celtic to their first league title in 12 years after a tight race with bitter rivals Rangers. Celtic had won the League Cup final against the Gers but lost the Scottish Cup final. There was heartache too, in the Cup Winners’ Cup, when Bobby Lennox’s disallowed strike denied Celtic progression past Liverpool in the semi-finals. So, there were highs and lows, but it was a promising platform for Stein from which he was focused on improving on.

He took the players to the United States and trained well in the summer of 1966, after which they returned refreshed and ready for a full-bodied assault on what would transpire to be the most spectacular and successful season in the club’s history. Stein famously said at the dawning of the new season that he felt his players could win everything. This wasn’t the ramblings of an accidental prophet, however; Stein had felt for quite some time that a special chemistry had been building at Celtic. He had taken Celtic out of Rangers’ gloomy shadow and restored a booming self-esteem.

Stein’s role in transforming the mentality and ability of the players simply cannot be overstated. He had redefined the role of the manager to someone who felt every kick and fall with the players. He was in no way disconnected because he was stood in the dugout – he had elevated his role through a greater, intimate affinity with the players, and they never lost sight of that. He exhausted some of the manager behavioural clichés at Parkhead; first at the training ground in the morning, last to leave and all that, but it was all part of how Stein operated. He was never a great sleeper and could often be found prowling the corridors at the training ground while his players were at home, fast asleep.

He played the media masterfully too. Stein settled into holding a press conference every Sunday to ensure he occupied a generous portion of the Scottish daily back pages. It was all part of his masterplan. During those fabled first years at Celtic, his personality soared and his influence was undeniable. He became a giant who was constantly the talk of the press as his team continued to trounce opponents, battering home wins game after game in a season that witnessed a glorious unbeaten run, with only the occasional glitch along the way. It would be disrespectful to the other teams in the Scottish league to say Celtic only required showing up in order to put in a performance, but there was a noticeable difference in how Stein prepared for domestic games compared to in Europe.

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Archie Macpherson tells an interesting story in his biography of Stein that provides some invaluable insight into Stein’s mastery concerning Celtic’s tie with Zürich. Celtic had beaten the Swiss side 2-0 at home when their opponents spent much of the game defending. For the return game in Switzerland, the players openly disagreed with their manager about how their opponents would play. Stein insisted that they would stick to the defensively-minded sweeper system they exhibited at Parkhead, while the players believed they would show a much more obvious attacking thrust because they were at home. Stein managed to convince everyone he was right and, unsurprisingly, Celtic proceeded to win 3-0 thanks to some fine attacking play. That day, Stein confirmed his status as some form of soothsaying managerial wizard.

The South Lanarkshire native’s prescience had to be in full flow for his date with destiny when Celtic tussled with Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan on that fateful night in Lisbon. It was May 25, 1967, and the two managers sat only a few yards away from each other in the sun-soaked Estádio Nacional. The stadium was bustling with 45,000 spectators and the anticipation was at fever pitch. Although Celtic were a premiere force in European football, Stein’s opposite number was as formidable as they come.

One of the great protagonists of the defensive catenaccio style, Herrera has tasted European Cup glory with Inter in successive seasons, 1964 and ’65, beating Real Madrid and Benfica respectively. Herrera had done for Inter what Stein had done for Celtic, but his ideology could not have been more different. His Inter were built on the principles of defending, masterfully absorbing pressure before unleashing their flair on the counter-attack.

It appeared to work for Inter in the opening exchanges of the final, getting their noses in front with a penalty in the seventh minute from Sandro Mazzola. For the first hour, Celtic’s attackers struggled to break down the wall of defence built by Inter. But Celtic persisted, in a manner so resolute and relentless in their pursuit of goals that, ultimately, it was too much for the Italians.

First Tommy Gemmell scored a beautifully-taken equaliser after 63 minutes before Stevie Chalmers immortalised himself in Celtic folklore by notching the all-important winner six minutes from time, the most crucial goal of his career. Celtic were European champions, the first British team to lift the European Cup – and they achieved it in a manner befitting of the most prestigious club competition in football.

Deservedly, Stein’s attacking philosophy was hailed by the press. Mundo Desportivo wrote: “It was inevitable. Sooner or later the Inter of Herrera, the Inter of catenaccio, of negative football, of marginal victories, had to pay for their refusal to play entertaining football.” Herrera admitted after the game, rather eloquently, that Inter were shattered by Celtic’s sheer force. “We can have no complaints. Celtic deserved it. Although we lost, the match was a victory for sport.”

“A great manager, my pal for years. a great man as well, with a heart of gold who’d give his last shilling. Aye, Stein, he’s the best.” Bill Shankly on Jock Stein

Before the game, Hugh McIlvanney remembered in his Observer report of the game, Stein told him: “Inter will play it defensively. That’s their way and it’s their business. But we feel we have a duty to play the game our way, and our way is to attack. Win or lose, we want to make the game worth remembering. Just to be involved in an occasion like this is a tremendous honour and we think it puts an obligation on us. We can be as hard and professional as anybody, but I mean it when I say that we don’t just want to win this cup. We want to win it playing good football, to make neutrals glad we’ve done it, glad to remember how we did it.”

Stein had become a European champion and he had done it playing his way. He defied the much-maligned defensive tactics of Herrera’s Inter and became a footballing immortal. It was the crowning achievement in a career that brought Stein 10 Scottish league titles, eight Scottish Cups and six Scottish League Cups. He led Scotland to the 1982 World Cup as manager and revitalised Hibernian during his short spell there, but he will always be remembered as the man who gave us the Lisbon Lions, the sweeping juggernaut of a side that stole the hearts of Europe in ruthlessly and mercilessly exposing the cynicism of Herrera’s defensive system. Celtic’s success in 1967 will never be repeated, not in the footballing climate we live in today. They only player in that side not born with a dozen miles of Celtic Park was Lennox, who hailed from 30 miles away in Ayrshire. It was the most local, unique win in European Cup history; perhaps even the finest.

Stein didn’t just win things, he made football exciting and interesting – he added a bit of mystery to the magic. The players simply loved football under him; he innovated the training regime and truly brought the best out an extraordinary squad of players.

When he collapsed that night in Cardiff and the news began to filter out of his passing, there was a unanimous silencing of the Tartan Army. Stein’s immense stature and contribution to the Scottish game was unanimously appreciated and when he died, many took it like they had lost a relative, someone they felt close to despite the distance.

Yes, he could be brutal with players and he undoubtedly had a dark side to his persona, but Stein’s achievements transcend that purely because we’re basing him on being a football man. We’re not here to analyse his personality and how often he invited the players round to his house for a cup of tea. Whatever they thought of him personally, his players never lost that enormous respect and admiration for his virtues as a football coach.

Stein beautifully summed up his football philosophy during his glory days with Celtic: “I think it is important to win a match, but I think what is even more important is the manner in which you win.” As succinct a summation of the man you’re ever likely to hear.

By Matt Gault  @MattGault11

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