Nostalgia

Jock Stein: Scotland’s Greatest Ever Manager

Jock Stein
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The year 1985 was a year to forget for football. From Heysel to the Bradford City fire, tens of people went to watch a football game and never came home. But there was another tragedy north of the border in that year; a tragedy which showed the vulnerability of managing a national side, a tragedy which showed the pressures of the modern-day game.

Following Scotland’s 1-1 draw against Wales in a crucial World Cup qualifier, Scottish great Jock Stein collapsed in the dugout. Initially, he appeared conscious; maybe – to quote the words of the great Brian Moore commentating on the game for ITV – he “had been overcome from it all”. The news turned out much more harrowing than that. Thirty minutes after full-time, Jock Stein was pronounced dead.

It was the end of an era. The end of a life which had touched so many. His impact on the Scottish game was unparalleled; from Shankly to Ferguson, that country has seen many a star manager over the years – but none ever like Stein. From guiding the Lisbon Lions in 1967 to 10 Scottish league titles with Celtic, there’s no surprise at all that he – in 2003 – was named the greatest ever Scottish manager.

Stein’s life began in the humble surroundings of Burnbank, some two and a half miles south of the M74 in Hamilton. This was 1922, less than four years following the conclusion of World War One.

The son of a miner, career prospects initially looked rather bleak for the youngster. It was tradition back then; as soon as you were ready, you’d leave school and start a career down the pits. For Stein, this came at the age of just 15. Yet there was an inner steel necessary to work day-in-day-out underground. Who knows, maybe this shaped the youngster for a career in management following his playing career?

It was a playing career that began in the lower echelons of the Scottish footballing pyramid. In 1940, he made the move to Blantyre Victoria, he had initially decided to move to Burnbank Athletic, yet changed his mind after going home and telling his father.

He eventually went on to feature for Albion Rovers, before making the trip to Wales to play for Llanelli. It was a modest living; after all, he was only earning £12 a week. But, he was a professional footballer, living the dream he had when he was a young child.

There was a problem, though. You know them footballers who just cannot adapt to their surroundings. Stein was that type of player at Llanelli. He had a few personal issues which made the trip to South Wales even more difficult – his family house was burgled; his wife was unhappy. There was even discussion if he should quit football and return to a career down the pits.

Thankfully for Stein (and arguably every other football fan), Celtic came calling as Christmas approached in 1951. Just 12 months later, when Irish legend Sean Fallon picked up an injury, Stein was appointed captain. Not bad for a player who was nearly lost to the mining industry less than two years previous.

He flourished in Glasgow. Celtic’s Scottish League Championship in 1954 was the first time they were crowned champions of Scotland since the conclusion of World War Two. It topped off a magnificent double, emulating the Rangers side of a year previous and the historic Celtic side of 1914.

But just three years later, his playing career came to an abrupt end. In a fixture against Coleraine in May 1956 Stein landed awkwardly on his ankle. Despite surgery, the ankle began to become irritable whilst on holiday in Blackpool. It became inevitable that he would miss a few months of the new season. In reality, however, he would never play the professional game again.

So what to do when you hang up your boots? This was the 1950s, so no roles in the media existed; if you wanted to remain within football, coaching was the only way. In July 1957, the opportunity of managing the Celtic reserves arose. It was a chance that Stein took with open arms. Maybe this was a chance to prove his name as a coach and, who knows, go on to manage the senior side as a result.

There was a problem with this, though. It was his faith. He was told he could never manage Celtic. Why? Because the club had never appointed a protestant manager. Less than three years later, and with no opportunity for a promotion, he had no choice but to move on.

An underperforming Dunfermline came calling; yet with the help of Stein, and a few smart signings along the way, the club began to flourish. During his debut season at the helm, he won his first piece of silverware as manager as they were crowned Scottish League Cup champions – that was followed up by a quarter-final place in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.

But in 1964, it was time for a change. After much speculation, Stein made the trip to Hibernian, although he had been tipped for several other jobs, including vacancies at Wolves and Newcastle. It proved to be a short spell, however. After rumour and gossip for several months, it was announced towards the conclusion of the 1964/65 season that he would make the move to Celtic.

As he walked through the doors of Celtic Park once again, he made history. In the process, he became the first protestant manager, and only the fourth in the club’s history. It was a mixed start to say the least; Celtic fans were optimistic when he won his first game 6-0, but that was followed up by two defeats, including a 4-2 defeat to former side Hibernian.

But by the end of the season they were celebrating. Two late goals by Billy McNeill secured Celtic’s first Scottish Cup since 1954. And the following season saw Celtic pick up their first league title in 12 years. It was very nearly a treble – after picking up the Scottish League Cup, they could have secured back-to-back Scottish Cups if it was not for John Hughes’ mistake allowing Kai Johansen to net the winner for Rangers.

But, as neighbours England celebrated their greatest triumph on the international scene, Stein and his Celtic side were preparing for what can only be described as the greatest triumph in the Scottish game.

Fresh from winning the league thanks to a 2-2 draw on the final day against Rangers, 25th May 1967 was a day that will be forever remembered around Glasgow. Celtic had reached the pinnacle of the game; the European Cup final. Stevie Chalmers’ goal secured a 2-1 win against Inter Milan – they became the first British side to become the champions of Europe. It would be a night that would write Stein into footballing folklore; the Lisbon Lions will never be forgotten at Celtic Park.

So where do you go after an evening like the one experienced in Lisbon? After all, Bill Shankly told Stein afterwards that he was “now immortal”. Around 1970, Manchester United came calling for Stein’s services. Stein said no. It was something that he would go on to regret later in his life.

After a car accident that nearly claimed his life in 1975, Celtic’s performances under Stein began to dry up. Despite being crowned champions of Scotland in 1977, just 12 months later, he departed Celtic Park and finally made the trip south of the border.

Leeds United came calling; he may have previously rejected the likes of Manchester United and Newcastle in the past, but this was a one-club city with memories of Don Revie still fresh in the brain of footballing fans across the UK, and even the world.

It didn’t prove to be a decision that paid off. Three months later, he departed following a frustrating set of early results and low attendances at their home ground.

But he left to take over his national side – the Scotland national team vacancy was advertised following Ally MacLeod’s failure to qualify for the 1978 World Cup. From then on, it could be said that he transformed their fortunes as well as qualified for the 1982 World Cup.

As they made the trip to Spain, optimism was high; it turned out to be a frustrating campaign though, as a 2-2 draw on the final day against the Soviet Union was not enough to secure a place in the second group stage. I guess there was always Mexico in four years’ time.

In reality for Stein, he wouldn’t make it to the 1986 World Cup. That night at Ninian Park is a telling sign for anyone about the pressures of management, even back in the 1980s. But there is no doubt that Stein will never be remembered for just that dark evening in September 1985 – no, he will be remembered for that golden era at Celtic. A legend of the club, a legend of his nation, a legend of the game.

Article by Conor O’Grady