Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The man who was king

The Big Man shows off a few trinkets
Maybe there is a danger that those of us who don’t go to bed at night dreaming green and white hooped dreams might be beginning to forget about Jock Stein. In the 40 odd years since his Lions tamed the Lisbon heat to conquer Europe the game has moved on. The Celtic of today would be all but unrecognisable for a man who belonged to a different era and who, you guess, would be unlikely to have approved of Scottish football or European football in its modern incarnation.

Perhaps less damagingly to the heritage of the beautiful game there is also a risk that those of us who suffered the wretched death throes of Scotsport might have allowed it to slip our minds that in Archie Macpherson, despite the increasingly frequent “misspeaking,” we have a throwback to the days – many claim the glory days – of Arthur Montford and Alex ‘Candid’ Cameron.

So it seems timely that these two should come together, one the posthumous, looming subject and the other the enthusiastic, admiring yet often critical biographer, in Jock Stein: The Definitive Biography, a book that often reads like a ballad not just for a lost genius but of a distant and increasingly, it seems, mythical past.

Amidst the blether we hear all but constantly about the Old Firm hatred Stein was a man born of one tribe who came to embody the other. Sectarianism seems to have appalled him - on one occasion he leapt into the crowd to disperse a group of singing bigots - he nonetheless framed his Celtic career in the battle to crush Rangers.

But the stern, gruff disciplinarian that has travelled down the years was every bit the media football showman that Brian Clough - another genius who couldn't handle the dour Yorkshire of Leeds - is cited as inventing. Indeed that leap into the terracing was timed to coincide with the dull Rangers boss Willie Waddell appealing for a little bit of peace, love and understanding from the Ibrox masses. Stein stole his thunder.

Managers like Stein are all but a lost breed but his legend lives on in the dugout at Old Trafford. Perhaps, in time, we will recognise Sir Alex Ferguson's genius to be his enduring ability to adapt the disciplinarian, ultra controlling Stein model to suit the modern game - a trick that sadly eluded Stein as his reign at Parkhead ebbed away.

On matters media Stein also set the tone for Ferguson, at once prickly, controlling, paranoid and generous. As a teetotaller he could have been a fish out of water with the drinking men on the football press corp. Instead he charmed, bullied and beguiled in equal measure. Only latterly in his Scotland years did the media stop singing from the song sheet he laid down.

The record, of course, speaks for itself. Stein's achievements will never be matched - could never be matched - in a changed game.

Macpherson recounts the tale with vigour and with genuine attachment to a subject he came to know well. True, as we might expect from Archie, some of the turns of phrase are odd - one in particular involving the pros and cons of protected sex leaves you with images that you really wish you'd never had - and the often leaden style of his later commentaries translates itself too often to the page.

For all that, however, the author has the benefit of having known Stein in the years leading up to that fateful night in Wales. As Stein mellowed he shared his memories: a rich seam that Macpherson mines lovingly, aided by solid gold anecdotes from players such as Jimmy Johnstone and Tommy Gemmill.

The flip side of such a strong character is shown as well. The win at all costs attitude is perhaps best displayed by the resentment felt by some of those celebrated, blazered Lions who feel the team was too quickly ripped apart as the manager tried to repeat the alchemy of 1967.

Warts and all, this is a fitting tribute to the greatest and most irreplaceable force Scottish football has ever known.