Looking back it’s easy to spot; that moment when an imperious manager peaks before tumbling over the edge, but at the time this moment is almost impossible to see. The moment Jock Stein peered over the mountain was absolutely impossible to identify at the time.
Celtic qualified for the 1970 European Cup final by beating English champions, Leeds United, home and away, and were hot favourites to lift the trophy for the second time in four seasons. They were about to win their fifth consecutive league title and would go on to make record a world record nine-in-a-row, meaning there was a mountain of ‘evidence’ obscuring the peak from view.
We were the most feared side in football in April 1970 but that team’s time as a European heavyweight was over. Stein remained a further eight seasons but he never beat another team from one of the large European leagues. A 1975 win over a relatively obscure Boavista was his best result* in the period before he was replaced in 1978.
The reverence Jock is rightly held in by all Celtic fans now was tested during the 70s when I remember tactics and even minor decisions, like substitutions, were being questioned by large sections of the support. It all ended in ignominy in 1978, fifth in the league and sacked in a clumsy and misleading fashion.
Jock was still a good manager and did well with Scotland but he should have moved on from Celtic years earlier.
Fans of other clubs will always see the moment of inflection before those too close to the event, but even Arsenal fans are now politely making the case that their once-supreme manager is no longer suitable for purpose. Anyone suggesting that Arsene Wenger was finished in 2004 would have been certified. His team had just won the league undefeated, the first team to do so since the 19th century. They won the FA Cup on penalties the following season and reached the Champions League final a year after that, but they have not lifted a trophy since 2005. Wenger was a fine 2004 vintage but has disappointed since.
After a slow start at Manchester United, Alex Ferguson has managed to remain at the top for 20 years. His most important ability appears to be to know when to change coaches, players and tactics. It has long been said that the best managers were not great players as they needed to acquire a conscious insight on the game which gifted players inherently knew. Perhaps enduringly great managers are not even tactical geniuses, it’s more important that they can just spot a few.
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* In European competition, between beating Leeds and when Jock left in 1978, Celtic eliminated Kokkola, Waterford, B1903 Copenhagen, Sliema Wanderers, Ujpest Doza, Rosenborg, Turku, Vejle, Basel, Valur, Boavista and Jeunesse d’Esch. They lost to Ajax, Inter Milan, Ujpest Doza, Atletico Madrid, Olympiakos, Sachsenring Zwickau and Wisla Krakow. And Feyenoord, of course.
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