“John, you’re immortal”, but of course he was mortal. Bill Shankly’s words from 1967 recorded the moment Jock Stein went from being merely a successful football manager into the greatest icon the Scottish game will ever have, but 30 years ago today, Jock’s mortality came as a shock to the world. A massive heart-attack, while managing Scotland at a World Cup qualifier at Ninian Park, Cardiff, ended the story of Jock Stein, aged 62.
He was 29 before he arrived at Celtic Park as a player after a career with Albion Rovers and Llanelli Town. By all accounts he was a decent central defender and a more than decent leader on the park. He quickly became vice-captain, then captain, and in 1954 led Celtic to their first double in 40 years, and their first league title in 16 years. Injury forced him out of the game as a 33-year-old. Celtic gave him a job coaching the reserve team, where he would work with some future Lisbon Lions.
In 1961, a year after becoming Dunfermline manager, he led them to their first Scottish Cup, beating Celtic in the final. In four years he transformed Dunfermline from the bottom of the table team he inherited, into a team who recorded astonishing victories in European football.
A meritocratic year at Hibernian then followed, at least part of which he spent discussing his future with Celtic chairman, Bob Kelly, before Kelly made one of the most inspired decisions in sport and offered Jock the Celtic manager’s job.
The rest, is literally history. In 13 years he took 10 league titles, winning all of his first nine. In his first five seasons he only lost three of 15 domestic trophies, but most important of all, in May 1967, his Celtic team became the first British club to reach, and then win, a European Cup final.
That European Cup win was enough in itself, but the manner of the win would mean Stein’s legend grew far wider than it otherwise would. Opponents Inter Milan were the most dominant team in the game. They were going for their third European Cup in four years and their fourth Italian title in five.
Celtic blew them away. It was the most comprehensive single goal victory in sport. The Italians were exhausted at the end, having defended 43 attempts at goal, seldom managing to cross the halfway line. The underdogs had triumphed, Celtic were instantly respected and adored across Europe, while Stein was viewed as having almost mystical powers.
So what did he really achieve? The Celtic you know today would be unrecognisable without him. Had he stayed at Hibs, they could be a bigger club than Celtic today. Our decades in the wilderness, which started in the 1920s, would have continued into the 70s and who knows thereafter. His gift to you, is Celtic. That’s why his statue is outside the ground.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light. Stein was a hard authoritarian, consistent with the style of the time. Football also caught up with him. Those first five years at Celtic, five league titles, five League Cups, two Scottish Cups, two European Cup finals, European semi-finalists a remarkable three times, were imperious, but some lights went out after losing to Feyenoord in the 1970 European Cup final.
After a fifth place finish in 1978 Celtic decided to sack Jock, offering him a position on the board, which he initially accepted but only later realised his responsibilities would be limited to Celtic Pools.
Football is a results business and looking back, the decision to sack The Big Man in 1978, should not be regarded as controversial. I certainly remember many Celtic fans of the era questioning his decisions, but the way the termination was handled was shoddy. Stein had lost his mentor, then Sir Robert Kelly, seven years earlier, while the pick of his second team, Hay, Macari and Dalglish, were sold for huge fees which were never invested in the squad. Or the stadium, training facilities or anything else an aspiring football club would invest in.
He grabbed the first offer out of Kerrydale St, but only 44 days later couldn’t wait to leave Leeds United to take up the Scotland job, where he returned to his earlier form. That night in Cardiff, Scotland stood on the verge of qualification for their fourth successive World Cup, two of which were under Stein.
The nation watched him being carried into the Ninian Park tunnel live on television. Even then, no one expected him to die. We thought Jock was immortal.
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