Jock Stein at Dunfermline: the launch of a legend

Jock Stein at Dunfermline: the launch of a legend

The name of Jock Stein is lauded – and rightly so – throughout British football as one of the greatest managers of all-time. As manager of Celtic, he would accumulate 10 Scottish league championships, eight Scottish Cups and six Scottish League Cups. He would also lead the club to unprecedented glory when they lifted the European Cup in 1967, becoming the first British club to ascend to such heights. 

Many years before that momentous Lisbon evening, however, Jock Stein, coach of Celtic’s reserves after injury ended his playing career, would be told that he would never be promoted to the manager’s chair due to his protestant beliefs. It was this barrier that caused him to leave the club in 1960, in pursuit of a managerial CV that would compel the cub to rethink. Five years later, he achieved that goal and returned to Celtic Park as manager to lead the club to glory. In between those times, he would cut his teeth as a manager at lowly Dunfermline Athletic.  

Inevitably, any new manager faces problems when taking over at a club. Except in the very rarest of circumstances, there’s only a vacancy because the previous incumbent has fallen short of the required standard, with an accompanying downturn in results. When, on 14 March 1960, Stein took up the reins at East End Park, it was very much in those circumstances. 

With just a couple of months remaining of the season and six league games to play, the club were mired in a relegation battle. Having recorded just four league victories all season and without a win in the previous four months, Dunfermline sat two points from the bottom of the league, with just Stirling Albion and Arbroath beneath them. Relegation seemed an increasing probability and any rescue mission would have tested the best of football managers. Fortunately for Dunfermline, the new man in charge, albeit as a rookie in terms of first-team football, was one of those very special managers.

His first game in charge pitted his new club against his old one, Dunfermline squaring up to Celtic. It should be mentioned that at this time, the Glasgow club weren’t anything like the force they would become when Stein returned, but a safe mid-table position suggested anything but a victory for the Pars. Nevertheless, Stein ripped up the form book and led his team to a famous 3-2 victory.

It was the start of a rampaging recovery as, after going four months without a win, Dunfermline ticked off six consecutive wins, during which time Stein made just one change to this team, compelled by an injury to Jimmy Wardhaugh in the Celtic game, with George Miller deputising in the remaining games of the season. The run eased the club into a comfortable finishing 13th position, six points clear of the drop and a mere four astray of Celtic.

It was just the prelude, though. Across the following three seasons, the club would enjoy the sort of renaissance only afforded to those employing managers of worldwide repute.

Having retained the club’s top-flight status, Stein sought to solidify his ranks and push forward. The experienced pair of Willie Cunningham and Tommy McDonald were brought in, and, illustrating a commitment to promoting local talent, Willie Callaghan and Jackie Sinclair were pushed forward into the first team reckoning. 

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The new season may only have brought advancement in the league by a single position, but an increase in the number of league victories and a decrease in defeats suggested that Stein was on the right track, and the Pars’ progress in the Scottish Cup underscored that assessment.

A 4-1 victory south of the border over Berwick Rangers was a more than acceptable start in the first round, followed by a 3-1 win at Stranraer. In the third round, however, they were drawn to travel to Pittodrie to face an Aberdeen team that would finish in the top six of the league and, in their previous meeting, had rattled in six goals at East End Park in a resounding victory. It looked like the end of their run. In what would be a milestone in the club’s progress, however, the Pars recorded a stunning victory.

Inside the first hundred seconds, it seemed that form would play out as Pars goalkeeper Jim Herriot fumbled and Brownlee put the home side ahead. It took a further 19 minutes for Dunfermline to level when a cross from the right by Dickson was headed home by Alex Smith. Then, on 32 minutes, home goalkeeper Ogston reprised Herriot’s fate and Charlie Dickson put Stein’s team ahead. 

It was a damp February day in the northern Scottish city, and the condition of the pitch reflected the weather at the time of year as players slid about on the treacherous surface, but the home team pressed almost relentlessly up to the break with Ewan and Brownlee drawing saves from Herriot. At half-time, the Pars still held the advantage. The second half would be a rip-roaring 45 minutes of goals. 

Just three minutes after the restart, prospering from a dubious offside decision, Tommy McDonald put Dunfermline two clear as the away team took the ascendency, but just before the hour mark, against the run of play, Brownlee cut the arrears. Any thoughts of a fightback were banished a couple of minutes later when Dickson flicked on a cross and Melrose’s deflected shot found the back of the net.

The game was in effect settled eight minutes from time when George Peebles rounded off a fine Dickson dribble. A third home goal by Coutts was the most meagre of consolations, and when the scoring was rounded off by Miller seconds from time, it gave a sixth to Dunfermline and handed out a caning to the home team. It was time for Scottish football to recognise Dunfermline, and their bright young manager, as a coming force.

A 4-0 home victory over Alloa Athletic in the last eight merely underscored things, but an encounter with St Mirren in the semi-finals would be far more troublesome. A replay was required for Stein’s team to overcome the Paisley club by a single goal and set up an emotional final against his old club, Celtic.

It would take another replay to decide who lifted the trophy, but on 26 April 1962, in front of nearly 88,000 fans at Hampden Park, goals from Dave Thomson and Charlie Dickenson saw Dunfermline over the line. It was the club’s first major honour since their foundation more than 85 years earlier. In addition, it meant the club would play in European football the following season. It’s an honour that may well have tasted that bit sweeter as Celtic were yet to achieve such heights.

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After such a successful term, it would have been understandable if the Pars suffered from second-season syndrome. A fourth-place finish in the league, however, only franked the progress that Stein had made with the Fife club. A run to the Scottish Cup quarter-finals was also a more than reasonable return, especially when considering that they were sallying out on their maiden European adventure.  

The preliminary round tie against St Patrick’s Athletic was comfortable enough, with the Pars rattling in four goals both home and away. FK Vardar’s interest in the competition was all but extinguished as Dunfermline scored five without reply at East End Park, making a 2-0 defeat in the second leg of interest only to statisticians. It put Dunfermline into the last eight, but their journey would end there.

A 5-3 defeat to Hungarian Cup winners Újpest Dózsa eliminated Stein’s outfit, but their brief European odyssey had given them a taste for the high life. Their fourth place in the league meant they would have another chance to sample the delights of the continent when a Greek club withdrew from the Fairs Cup, opening up an unexpected bonus place that the Pars accepted with relish. 

Eighth place in the league and a third-round defeat to Aberdeen may have seemed like a backward step after the previous season, but this was a club massively overachieving as Stein weaved magical spells to inspire his team to heights that would normally have been beyond them. Back in Europe, they would excel against major opposition before falling so unluckily. 

The first round pitted them against an Everton team dubbed ‘The Bank of England’. The Toffees were on the way to being crowned English champions that season and their team included such luminaries as Billy Bingham, Brian Labone and the ‘Golden Vision’ himself, Alex Young. It was a huge challenge for the Fife side.

A single-goal defeat in Liverpool felt like a reasonable scoreline to tackle back north of the border. Everton were still the overwhelming favourites to progress, but Stein, ever the opportunist, found the perfect way to inspire his players. The English press had all but written off the tie before a ball had been kicked, declaring that Everton would comfortably account for this mid-table Scottish club with their novice manager. One even decried the club to the extent of calling them “country hicks”.

Ahead of kick-off, the story goes, Stein walked into the Dunfermline dressing room and pinned the page with the “country hicks” line on for all his players to see. The move was accompanied by more than a few choice remarks. Whatever the case, the message got through. Goals from Miller after just five minutes to square the aggregate scores and then the deciding strike from Melrose with three minutes left ensured that there would be more than a few red faces for the football writers of the English red top newspapers the following day.

The victory set up what would probably be the tie of the competition as Stein’s team were paired with Spain’s Valencia. Just a couple of weeks before Christmas, the Spanish club were in no mood to hand out gifts and, playing front of a packed Mestella, goals from Héctor Núñez, Waldo Machado and Ficha had the home team three clear before the break. Take on any more water and the already listing Dunfermline ship was surely headed for the rocks.

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Six minutes after the restart, Waldo added a fourth and the tie looked settled. This Dunfermline team and their young manager, however, were made of stern stuff and, back at East End Park, on a bone-hard, semi-frozen pitch, especially after the triumph over Everton, they believed anything was possible. 

The compact stadium was packed when the Spaniards came to town. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to consider the job already done. Outside of the tight circle of Stein and his team, most surely did. Perhaps even the majority fans crammed into East End Park thought the struggle was forlorn, but they wanted to see what their team could do.

They would be royally entertained with a performance full of verve and character that ultimately deserved better than the denouement it endured. If the cup victory over Aberdeen had established the Pars on the domestic scene, this one would earn respect across Europe. Just six days before Christmas, Dunfermline were ready to jingle some bells.

Stein didn’t want a hungry team to face the Spanish club; he wanted a ravenous one. He deployed young players Alex Edwards and Jackie Sinclair in the forward line to set the pulses racing – and didn’t they do their manager justice. A mere 10 minutes had ticked by when the former opened the scoring driving in at the far post. Was there hope? Within six minutes, it was clear there was.

On 15 minutes, Edwards, in inspired form, hit a cross from the right, finding Sinclair in acres of space at the far post to head home. The pair of youngsters, thrown into the fray by Stein, hugged and celebrated, but better was to follow. The Spanish assurance had been shaken. A further 60 seconds later, it was torn asunder. 

Sinclair hustled Los Che out of possession in their own half and found Peebles in space on the left. He cut inside, then outside, before driving home the third goal. Within a mere 16 seconds of play, the seemingly invincible four-goal lead had been cut to the narrowest of margins. The Spaniards were on the ropes, but they were a more than capable team. Defending now surely wouldn’t get the job done. They needed a goal to puncture the inflated belief amongst the Scots that the tie was now there for the taking. 

They steadied the ship for a few minutes before striking back as Guillot tapped home from a few yards after a through ball from Núñez had opened up the home defence. It was a blow to Scottish aspirations, but hardly the death knell. Dunfermline rolled forward again and again trying to re-establish momentum. Twelve minutes ahead of the break, it happened. A cross from the right by Smith caused confusion in the Valencia back line and centre-half MacLean, way out of position supporting his forwards, sneaked in to sweep home off the far post. It was now 4-1.

Three minutes later, the impossible seemed to be on again. Smith hoisted a ball over the top of Los Che’s defence and Peebles galloped gleefully onto it to steer his shot home. In a stunning performance, Dunfermline had wiped out the aggregate deficit inside the first 45 minutes and netted no less than five goals against a club who would only concede 36 in the entire 30-game LaLiga programme that season. 

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It had been a titanic effort by Stein’s team, driven on by some inspirational team selection, tactical awareness and the ability to convince his players that nothing was beyond them. There’s a physical price to pay for such exertions, though, and in the second half, keeping up such a dynamic game plan proved to be more and more taxing. 

The first 15 minutes passed with no change, then fate played a cruel hand. A cross was nodded clear and as a half-hit shot came back into the home box, it deflected off MacLean, wrong-footing goalkeeper Jim Herriot and finding its way, somewhat apologetically, into the net. It was surely the killer blow.

There was still fight in the Pars, though, and a goal by Smith cut the arrears once more. Amazingly, it was now 6-6 on aggregate and a playoff seemed inevitable, unless there was one final twist to this sensational game. As time ticked on, Dunfermline pressed heroically, but tired limbs were unable to summon any further goals and the Spanish club escaped, surely thanking their good fortune. 

On 6 February, the two met again to decide who would go forward. After a game festooned with goals, it’s perhaps no surprise that this encounter was much more controlled. A single goal by Manuel Mestre just ahead of the hour mark was sufficient for Valencia. Four months later, in much balmier conditions, they would go on to lift the trophy. The tie against the Scots would be the closest they came to elimination. 

For a club such as Dunfermline, such unheralded success can be a double-edged sword. By now, it was becoming increasingly clear that the considerable talent they had sitting in the manager’s chair was simply too big for the Pars to retain. Inevitably, other clubs would cast envious eyes and eventually come calling. 

The following season, without European competition, Dunfermline were again prospering domestically and interest in Stein was growing. In February 1964, it was reported in the press that Stein would be leaving East End Park at the end of the season. He would move to Hibernian, taking over from Walter Galbraith.

Despite him taking Hibs near to the top of the league and enjoying solid progress in the Scottish Cup, it was a short stay in Edinburgh. Fate always seemed to have it in mind that Stein should return to Celtic and show that his managerial talent was far more important than any particular religious bias. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Stein took Celtic to unprecedented glory and became the first British manager to lift the European Cup. If the legend was made in Glasgow’s East End, however, few could argue that its cradle was East End Park, when a young, unheralded manager arrived and took Dunfermline on an unbelievable journey that was once just the stuff of dreams. It was the launch of a legend.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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