In 1970 my great-uncle, a kindly man, agreed to start taking me to Celtic matches. He preferred to set off long before the buses became rowdily congested with supporters and usually the turnstiles had still to open when we arrived. There was even an occasion when we beat the manager to his own ground. In consequence, I have a tenacious memory of watching Jock Stein, with the pitching gait imposed by a bad ankle, making his way from the car park to the main door.
Curiously, my recollection of him in the great public moments is much more vague. All the triumphs, when the crowd would at last coax him onto the pitch for an ovation after some trophy-winning game, have merged in my mind. As a 12-year-old the jubilation seemed so inevitable that I would not have been surprised to find Celtic's clinching of the league championship printed in my pocket diary alongside public holidays and every other dependable event. Stein's presence was the guarantee. So the mere sight of him going to his work reassured me. A lot of grown-ups shared the feeling.
Our heroes are just a spare set of parents and we treat them in exactly the same fashion. At first, they seem beyond reproach but soon enough we decide that they are in fact beyond the pale. Idolatry can only be sustained for as long as our supplies of innocence and ignorance last. In our teens we all get the hang of sneering. With luck, though, it becomes possible, much later, to relish the people we viewed with such distaste. Was it Mark Twain who remarked, upon returning to his family after years away, that he was amazed to discover how much his father had learned? Jostled and harried along by our own lives we find our way back to admiration. It is healthier than hero-worship.
Stein's record does, of course, deserve reverence. Racking up nine successive league championships with Celtic and winning the European Cup itself is an imposing feat. The real glory, though, lay in the tenor of his team in that period. They had élan, brio, gusto; that quality that can appear as foreign to us as the terms we apply to it. The poet Iain Crichton Smith has said that Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry and Celtic's defeat of Inter Milan in 1967 were the two elements of contemporary Scottish life which had wholly impressed him. This remark only appears affected until you try to dispute it. At their peak, Celtic were hungry for the comparison with every other club in the world. Of how many other Scottish institutions could you say as much?
The thrift of Stein’s achievement also appealed to our national character. His great Celtic teams were fashioned almost entirely from players who had cost the club nothing. Following his appointment as manager, in 1965, of a decidedly dishevelled club he organised and inspired a talented but despondent set of footballers. Although Stein had no interest in aping the appearance, lifestyle and attitude of the suave continental coaches, his mind, where the game itself was concerned, was at least as sophisticated. The rudimentary tactics employed before his arrival on the Scottish scene were the result of tradition rather than thought. He, however, while in charge of Celtic’s reserve team at the beginning of his managerial career, was attempting to introduce the 4-2-4 system Brazil had employed shortly before the 1958 World Cup.
If not an innovator, Stein was at least up to date. He had the stamina to keep pace with his curiosity, relentlessly travelling to watch even the most inconsequential match in case there was something to be learned. A tendency to insomnia also allowed plenty of time for reflection. The intelligence was paired with intuition. 'You need 11 voices for 11 players,' Willie Knox, then the manager of the potent Auchinleck junior team, once said to me. Stein had that gift of tongues, knowing the perfect words and tone for each individual, whether it be his right-back Jim Craig, a graduate in dentistry, or his well-meaning, self-destructive, maverick winger, Jimmy Johnstone.
Anyone of Stein’s background and ability, however, is always in danger of being engulfed by myth. For those who like a good yarn he was the lad from humble origins who had achieved international fame. Stein’s early employment as a miner ensures that writers are just as besotted with his tale. He had 12 years in that job, working down Bothwell Castle pit, and the occupation was always part of his identity. Ken Gallacher's engrossing biography, told solely in the words of those who knew Stein, describes his behaviour during a strike in the second world war. He handed over to a union official, Mick McGahey, the couple of pounds he had earned while playing for Albion Rovers on the Saturday because he did not think it right that he should have even that money while his work-mates had nothing. Over 40 years later, Stein was observed cramming somewhat larger sums into the NUM collection can during another strike.
The labour could never have been easily forgotten. Stein, in an era before pithead baths, would come home filthy. His large frame also meant that he was covered in the scratches collected as he inched his way to the seams. Hugh McIlvanney, in an article written for the Observer a few days after Stein's death in 1985, records his description of life as a miner: 'There's nothing as dark as the darkness down a pit, the blackness that closes in on you if your lamp goes out. You'd think you would see some kind of shapes but you can see nothing, nothing but the inside of your head. I think everybody should go down the pit at least once to learn what darkness is.'
Stein was recommending an encounter with the reality of the work. He wanted a proper understanding of its harshness, but I wonder what he would have made of the sentimentality with which the mining industry is viewed now that, in effect, it no longer exists. There is a middle-class yearning to think of miners as noble savages, as if the severity of their lives made some sort of authenticity inevitable. The agonising work, we like to think, must have forced people to make common cause and discover a camaraderie unknown to us in our cosy, shameful offices. This line of thought is dangerous. It leads us to mourn the passing of a barbaric occupation when we should be regretting only the loss of the jobs it created.
Perhaps the sharing of danger and privation did bring out the best in many people. Stein always retained a special regard for miners. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that the pits were filled with muscular socialists who could be depended on to treat their fellow men with open-hearted generosity. No doubt Bothwell Castle in Stein's time contained its share of flawed, disreputable humanity. Certainly, no-one would mistake Lanarkshire for the New Jerusalem. Sectarianism washed round Stein and his impermeability to it was one of his most appealing features. According to most accounts the dismay in Burnbank never abated that this son of a Protestant family should give his immense talent to a Catholic club.
Ludicrous rumours were devised by men who wished to suggest the utter inappropriateness of Stein's presence with Celtic. When he returned from Llanelly to sign for them as a player in 1951 it was persistently whispered, for example, that he had a tattoo of King Billy on his chest. Two decades on there was a mischievous player at the club who liked to refer casually to this 'fact' when he knew there were gullible fans eavesdropping on the conversation. Celtic will always reflect their origins in the Catholic community but when Stein was manager he came close to removing the sectarianism and making the club accessible to anyone, of whatever faith, who could appreciate thrilling football. It is an oversimplification to believe that he could have achieved so much by being a typical product of the mines. The employment had its effect on his character but the degree to which he differed in attitude from the people in his community was just as important. Power suited Stein. He had a senior civil servant's gift for cunning and strategy. His famous rages after a provocative incident have been lovingly recorded but those who observed him over the years believe that his emotions were never truly unfettered. The anger would be deployed for a purpose and it could be contained when expedient.
In his autobiography, 'Action Replays', Archie Macpherson describes an episode in Switzerland in 1980 when Stein, the late Tommy Younger, then president of the Scottish Football Association, and other SFA officials were having a meal. Younger embarked on a diatribe, which he had clearly been brooding over for some time, denouncing Stein's record with Scotland and telling him that his predecessors had been sacked for just such lame performances. The manager responded with mildness, suggesting only that it might be better to have a discussion in a more private setting. For Macpherson the episode encapsulated Stein's loss of vitality in the later part of his life. Perhaps so, but the manager hadn't always recognised the need for compromise and accommodations. Sean Fallon, his assistant with Celtic, remembers being kicked under the table by Stein at a board meeting because he was about to say something candid and ill-advised.
Stein's personality allowed him to exude or withhold warmth as he wished. Ruthlessness was a well-mastered part of his repertoire. Two journalists have told me how, on first encountering Stein as callow youths, he chose to mock them in front of their colleagues at a press conference. This was policy more than malice. Stein was attempting to plant inhibitions which might later be of service to him. During his leaden years in charge of Scotland there was remarkably little direct criticism of him in the newspapers. He had earned respect, but you wonder whether that journalistic reticence did not also stem from fear of him. It was not only the press who felt the weight of his authority.
Some time after his death a pair of former Celtic players were walking towards a supporters' club where they were due to speak. 'How could we ever tell them what a bastard he was?' said one to another. Footballers, admittedly, are not reliable witnesses. Almost every player's career ends in some form of rejection. There was, however, an unarguable harshness about some of Stein’s dealings with his men. Willie Wallace, after five years with Celtic, was wakened one morning at the Seamill training camp and told he must speak to some Crystal Palace officials because he was to be sold. There was no word of thanks and no explanation. Stein was also a remorseless negotiator when faced with players he did wish to retain. Jim Craig earned £35 a week in 1965 and, after the European Cup and all the championships, was on just £52 when he left seven years later.
In the task of controlling the budget, the manager was assisted by the system of contracts which applied in football at that time. In essence, a player remained the property of the club for as long as it wished. Stein was at home with those draconian, uncomplicated regulations. His spartan taste expressed itself in the very look of his players. Never mind Sergeant Pepper and flower power, his team was compelled to stick to the short back and sides and to wear grubby training kit which made it absolutely clear that football was supposed to be a form of manual labour. The only escape from austerity lay in the matches themselves, where the impudent energy of the late 1960s might be put to good use. In that decade, whether with Dunfermline Athletic, Hibernian or Celtic, Stein was the ideal manager. He was old enough to control ebullient youth and young enough to still understand it.
That equilibrium cannot last for long although Stein maintained it with more success than most. Even so, the later years brought an inevitable decline. Most people consider that the car crash that nearly killed him in 1975 deeply affected his temperament. He required a year to recuperate and when he did return to Celtic his old certainty had gone. Perhaps an accident which drives a steering wheel into your chest can make everything which had seemed solid appear fragile and provisional. Stein was, to all intents and purposes, eased out of Celtic Park in 1978. He became Leeds United manager, but remained at Elland Road for just 44 days. Although it was the Scotland job which lured him back, one could not have imagined Stein settling in England. By then he was too much embedded in the culture of Glasgow and Lanarkshire.
The energy and confidence continued to ebb away from Stein in his years in charge of the national side. He added an efficiency which took the team to a place at the 1982 World Cup and the 1-1 draw with Wales, on the night of his death, virtually ensured their qualification once again. His Scotland, though, thrilled no-one. Perhaps Stein lacked players of sufficient quality, but you suspect he would have achieved far more had he been given the job at the beginning of the 1970s. He had once been delicately attuned to the mood of supporters but was now capable of blundering. After a 1-0 defeat by England in 1982 he said the result had not mattered since the game was just a warm-up for the World Cup. As one of the 80,000 who had paid heavily for a ticket I know just how exasperating Stein's words were. Astoundingly, the SFA even apologised in its annual report.
Stein was also finding it difficult to understand his own players. It perplexed him, for instance, that Steve Archibald should choose to ignore the menu at dinner and instead ask for smoked salmon as his starter. Footballers were becoming wealthy and sophisticated. It was a development that did not agree with Stein. One might sympathise with him to some extent but it was his job to adapt to the circumstances which arose. What, after all, did it really matter if Maurice Johnston liked to sport an earring or Charlie Nicholas thought it the height of fashion not to wear socks? Stein's failure to accept these oddities may have indicated he was losing the mental suppleness he required.
And yet there is something intensely moving about these closing years of his life. The snap and the dash were gone but still he struggled to retain his great reputation. The thought of failure must be all the more intolerable when you have had well over 20 years of unstinting success. Stein fought decline with every resource he possessed. Enough expertise remained to nudge Scotland towards its expected place in the World Cup, but defeats took a terrible toll of Stein. Wales won 1-0 at Hampden in March 1985 and Stein spent the next six months agonising over the draw Scotland would now require from the return match in Cardiff.
Before setting off for that game he uncharacteristically cleared his muddled desk of all outstanding business. His health was failing, but a residue of guile remained. For that international with Wales, on 10 September, Stein felt that Davie Cooper of Rangers would be the decisive player but only introduced him as a substitute in the second half when the frenzy of the struggle was beginning to pass. Cooper proved effective against tiring opponents and Scotland, thanks to his equaliser from the penalty spot, collected the required point. Jock Stein's last match had bowed to his will like so many before it. At full-time, eager to be in the dressing room, he rose from his seat in the dug-out but then collapsed. Stein died of the heart attack not long after.
In those last years, football must have been a matter of great strain and small reward. Yet his time as Scotland manager made a deep impression on the people who knew him at the SFA. There was a certain mellowness about him by then. An old adversary, the SFA secretary Ernie Walker, became an unexpected friend. Detached from the day-to-day routine of training footballers Stein turned a benevolent nosiness on the staff around him, always eager to find out about their lives. Humdrum, almost domestic, details suggest a man at peace.
Stein could often be heard singing some Sinatra standard as he got into the lift. He is also recalled leaning against a radiator in a back office, relishing the opportunity to revisit some old disputes in the company of a former referee, Jack Mowat. The curious duties of a Scotland manager were also attended to. Upon being asked to write to a boy who had broken both his arms while pretending to be Tarzan, Stein sent a letter which included a suggestion that Kenny Dalglish might be a better role model.
Despite the worries of the post there was time for Stein to indulge his aptitude for fellowship. On his way to work one morning, he was listening to a discussion on the Jimmy Young programme about the minneola, a cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit. Soon he was in the office asking everyone if they knew what a minneola was. Some guessed at a musical instrument and most were nonplussed. When Stein at last explained there were a few who did not believe him. The Scotland manager reached for the Yellow Pages, called Malcolm Campbell's and disappeared. Eventually he returned carrying a paper bag. Those who had taken his word for its existence were given a minneola. The doubters had to make do with an orange. Placing your trust in Stein always was the wisest course.
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