The Legend Lives On
Twenty-nine years ago today, John Stein C.B.E (more commonly referred to simply as “Big Jock”) died a short time after his Scotland team drew one-all with Wales at Ninian Park, Cardiff. He was sixty-two years of age.
However, whilst his famous physical presence may be gone from this Earth, the spirit of Jock Stein certainly lives on almost three decades after his death. In fact, Stein is held in such high regard – not only by the supporters of Celtic Football Club but by many around the footballing world – that his spirit will likely outlive us all, offering a fine example for aspiring players and managers to follow as long as the beautiful game continues to be played.
Comparatively speaking, few individuals are remembered by those outside of their friends and family long after their death, and many of those who are have their respective infamy or notoriety to thank for this. After all, it was Shakespeare who said that “The evil that men do lives after them, the good that men do is oft interred with their bones…”, but I suppose I do not need to recall the words of a sixteenth century playwright to tell you that Jock Stein was a truly remarkable figure.
However, it is true that the sporting arena often reflects the wider world around it. Heroes and villains are remembered whilst many other characters fade with the natural passing of the sands of time. It is also probably true that it is easier to be remembered as a villain than as a hero – one particularly bad tackle, glaring miss, ill thought out celebration or brow-raising transfer can ensure you that status. Conversely, football produces so many goods and greats that it is a much more difficult task indeed to climb the proverbial ladder to the sphere of the true legends. Often it takes the entirety of one’s career to reach such heady echelons. It is the culmination of a life’s work, and that is why it is such a special accolade to achieve.
When Stein took the reins at Celtic Park in the spring of 1965, he became only the fourth manager in the then seventy-seven year history of Celtic Football Club, following on from Willie Maley, Jimmy McStay and Jimmy McGrory before him. The first of these three was a managerial behemoth in his own right, and the only man to lead Celtic whom I personally believe can be held in similar regard to Jock Stein.
Intriguingly, there were some notable similarities between the two men – both scored only two Celtic goals each despite making almost two hundred and fifty appearances between them, both learnt much from tactical errors they witnessed during their playing days, both could be immensely stubborn and both had famous confrontations with referees whom they felt were not carrying out their duties as they should have been.
Equally, both won the Scottish League Championship in their first full season as Celtic manager and both would see their respective sides break records with regards consecutive league titles (Maley’s side winning an unprecedented six in a row, a record which stood until it was broken by Stein’s side on their way to nine in a row). However, there were some clear differences between the two also which are worthy of mention, particularly regarding their respective approaches to training – an activity Stein was always heavily involved in (to an almost revolutionary degree) but Maley never took charge of – but I digress.
Anyway, whilst the two men were each successful if not legendary Celtic players, both would go on to become legendary Celtic managers.
Regrettably, the opposite could be said for the man whom Stein took over from at Celtic Park in 1965, Jimmy McGrory, whom most would agree was one of – if not the – greatest player ever to pull on a Celtic shirt. Yet, he only enjoyed relatively rare successes in his managerial role (this can, to some degree, be attributed to his friendly character and continual interference from the hierarchy at the Club, but that is a discussion for another day).
Regardless, when Jock Stein took charge, Celtic had not won a solitary piece of silverware in almost eight years, with their last triumph being the famous seven-one victory over Rangers in the autumn of 1957. Of course, this would all change less than two months later when two goals from Bertie Auld and one from Billy McNeill in front of over one hundred thousand spectators would bring the Scottish Cup back to Parkhead. Having reached the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup twice in the early to mid-sixties under McGrory, it was clear there was some potential within the squad which Stein inherited. However, whilst change was certainly in the air, few could have predicted the level of success the Celts would go on to enjoy in the years to come.
In all, Jock Stein would lead his Celtic sides to ten Scottish League Championship titles, eight Scottish Cup wins, six Scottish League Cup triumphs and, of course, one famous European Cup success. Added to this were the disappointments of a European Cup Final defeat, as well as two other losses in the semi-finals of the same competition which, hurtful though they undoubtedly were, with hindsight only emphasise the fact that Jock Stein had Celtic dining at and around the top table of European Football for a period approaching a decade in length.
During his tenure, he oversaw 690 competitive matches, 483 of which Celtic won – a win ratio of seventy percent. Losing less than one hundred times in all competitions, Jock Stein’s Celtic ended his thirteen year stewardship with a positive goal difference of well over one thousand, having scored 1790 goals whilst conceding only 660, a fine record indeed.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, Jock Stein continues to be both respected and admired by very many people within the footballing world. The style of play which he attempted to forge into the very hearts of his sides not only broke down the rigorous tenets of Catenaccio, but reminded us all that “the beautiful game” can indeed be a thing of beauty. Yes, immense levels of determination are required, as is some degree of physicality and grit, but Stein was a great believer that his players should try to entertain the thousands of paying spectators every time they took to the field. He was also a man who advocated openness and despised sectarianism, and yet even now, there are those people who attempt to besmirch the character of Stein, but such slurs fall on deaf ears.
Make no mistake about it, Jock’s incredible legacy has never been and nor ever shall be sullied by those who continually attempt to lay unfounded accusations at the feet of a footballing giant.
Instead, the spirit and story of Jock Stein will live on through Celtic Football Club and its supporters, whom he loved with all of his heart. The fact that his name adorns the stand at the traditional “Celtic End” of Celtic Park and his statue – European Cup in hand – has been given pride of place at the front of the ground is a lasting testament to this.
Brother Walfrid may have set Celtic Football Club on its path to greatness and Willie Maley guided it to many fantastic domestic successes, but it was Jock Stein who led the Club, players and supporters alike, to its pinnacle – a brief time when everything Celtic was the envy of the footballing world – and for that, he wholly deserves his sporting immortality.
And so, I shall leave you with some quotations not only from the great man himself, but from some of those men (many of whom were great in their own right) who played and worked alongside him over the years.
“My proudest moment? Every Friday morning when I look at the board at Celtic Park and see my name on the team sheet for tomorrow’s game.” – Jock Stein (as Celtic captain)
“Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing. Sometimes we are inclined to forget that. The only chance of bringing them into stadiums is if they are entertained by what happens on the football field.” – Jock Stein
“The best place to defend is in the opposition penalty box.” – Jock Stein
“Celtic jerseys are not for second best, they don’t shrink to fit inferior players.” – Jock Stein
“It is up to us, to everyone at Celtic Park, to build up our own legends. We don’t want to live with history, to be compared with legends from the past. We must make new legends.” – Jock Stein
“I am proud to say that I knew Jock Stein as a manager, as a colleague and as a friend…he was the greatest manager in British football…men like Jock will live forever in the memory.” – Sir Alex Ferguson
“A great manager, my pal for years. a great man as well, with a heart of gold who’d give his last shilling. Aye, Stein he’s the best!” – Bill Shankley
“The greatest manager in the history of the game. You tell me a manager anywhere in the world who did something comparable, winning the European Cup with a Glasgow District XI.” - Hugh McIlvaney (Journalist)
“Jock Stein was the greatest manager ever to draw breath. There was no one who came anywhere close to him.” – Jock Wallace (Rangers manager, 1972-78)
“Jock Stein put us on the park afraid of no one.” - Bobby Murdoch
Oh, to see his likes again.