Friday, September 10, 2010

Jock Stein

10th September 1985.

Scotland clinch a draw with Wales to get to the play offs for the 1986 World Cup final. A typically Scottish story. Needing a point we go behind, lose a goalkeeper when he loses a contact lense and need a late penalty to get the job done.

And then the world seemed to collapse.

I was only five. In Primary Two.

I watched the game and went to bed.

It was the next morning that I found out that Jock Stein had died.

I remember it clearly although I was too young to understand it.

But the memory of Stein lingers still. Maybe at times like this, times of early European exits, of a last gasp win over Liechtenstein, the memory of his achievements haunts our current travails.

A Scottish Cup win and a European quarter final with Dunfermline - building a foundation at that club would see another cup win and a Cup Winners Cup semi final before the 1960’s were out.

A short spell at Hibs saw him guide them into contention for a double, tellingly that challenge fell away as soon as Stein left to join Celtic. At Hibs he also managed the wayward, fleeting genius of Willie Hamilton. Stein saw the potential of the footballer and backed himself to control the temperament that came with it.

And then to Parkhead. We all know the rest. A club that remained huge but was apparently unable to turn their size and history into success on the pitch. A club he reinvented as the dominant force in Scottish football.

With each passing year the 1967 European Cup triumph seems more remarkable, more detached from our current reality.

Like stories of the British Empire stretching to cover the globe, it seems unreal that the Scottish champions, a team drawn from the environs of Glasgow, could somehow reach the summit of European football.

It was, and remains, a remarkable achievement and Jock Stein’s role in it deserves to be celebrated still.

As a Protestant manager of Celtic he was a trailblazer. As a football man he saw only a club that had the potential to be a European giant. He never hid his disdain for some of the more unsavoury aspects of the Old Firm rivalry - although nor could he hide his pleasure at beating Rangers.

Like Bill Shankly he was also a trailblazer in promoting the cult of the manager. If the Rangers manager was due to address the Ibrox crowd on the issue of sectarianism then Stein would choose that day to jump in amongst his own crowd and berate them on their own behaviour.

An important point made and the front page coverage guaranteed. The aura continued to grow. Brian Clough wasn’t the first to cultivate an image. Jose Mourinho isn’t reinventing the wheel with his behaviour.

And the essential decency of the man who knew that football was a game to be celebrated and enjoyed but was not everything. His work to unite the Glasgow fans in mourning for the Ibrox Disaster in 1971 was a measure of both the man and how he hoped the rivalry should be conducted.

He held on to his roots as well. Alex Ferguson recalls a ticking off for not donating to a collection for the miners during the strikes of the mid-1980s: “I’m surprised at you of all people forgetting these lads.”

Maybe in Ferguson we see the last of the breed that gave football Shankly and Stein. Certainly in the Old Trafford manager we see the last of the managers that learnt their business through watching Stein. Big Jock, it turns out, wasn’t that bad a teacher either.

Finally Scotland. The 1982 World Cup and the disappointment of another first round exit. And the push to Mexico in 1986. The final push that proved too much for even this larger than life man.

Bill Shankly, perhaps alone amongst leading English managers in recognising what Stein was on the brink of pulling off, travelled to support his friend in Lisbon for the European Cup final.

“John, you’re immortal” he said after the game.

He wasn’t. But his unique achievements and his memory will live with us as long as the game is played.

* Extensive coverage in today's Record. I had a chuckle at Alan Rough's quote:
"As I walked out of the dressing room Big Jock was standing near the door. His last words to me were, 'Good luck, ya fat b*****d'."