My Last Love
Bob Kelly had watched the injury list grow at Celtic Park and thought it wise to add a steady defender to the pool as cover. He asked the experienced old reserve coach, Jimmy Gribben, who he thought they should go for. The grey haired trainer thought for a moment, ‘There’s a steady chap I know playing down in Wales, I’ll give him a call and see if he’d be interested in joining us.’ The Chairman looked at him, ‘What’s his name?’ Gribben replied, ‘Stein… Jock Stein. You might recall he was with Albion Rovers?’ Bob Kelly nodded, ‘The name rings a bell. Give him a call and we’ll see what transpires.’
380 miles away in South Wales, 29 year old Jock Stein was not a happy man. The football was good and God knows Llanelli were good to him. His defensive partnership with the tough Welsh internationalist, Jack Roberts, made Llanelli a tough club to beat and he earned more in Wales than many players did in the First Division of his native Scotland. However his wife, Jean, was a home bird and Jock was on his own in digs in Mansell Street. He had a wife and child and needed to earn to support them but they were often far away in Scotland. His mood wasn’t helped when a phone call told him his house in Scotland had been burgled again. He knew Jean was finding it tough without him. There seemed no easy way out of his predicament when the Llanelli Chairman told him that a Scottish Club had called and were interested in signing him. When he asked which club, he was surprised when the Chairman replied, ‘Celtic.’ The Chairman of Llanelli may not have known the off field consequences a man like Stein would have to face if he joined the so called ‘Catholic’ club of Scotland. The tiresome bigotry which hung around the west of Scotland like a bad smell would no doubt impact on his life if he signed. However, the fact that Celtic wanted him and that much respected Jimmy Gribben had recommended him sealed the deal and Jock Stein was on his way home.
£1200 changed hands in that cold December of 1951 and Jock Stein was a Celtic player. The £12 a week he was paid was similar to his wage in Wales but at least he could be home with his family. He was however soon to feel the force of the petty bigotry which existed then. Friends he knew from his early days in Burnbank shunned him and one good friend in particular never spoke to him again. He would say later…
"I lost some friends when I made the move, but if that's what matters to them, then they're not really friends at all."
Injuries to defenders saw Stein break into the first team and lead Celtic to fleeting success in the mid-fifties as the sleeping giant won the Coronation cup in 1953 and the league and cup double the following season. Injuries put an end to his career as a player a couple of years later and under the influence of Jimmy Gribben he became reserve team coach. He put his considerable mind to the science of soccer. He had studied the great Hungarian team of the 1950s and even travelled to Wembley to watch them beat England 6-3. The English press were stunned at the first foreign team to win in England and boasted that this fluke result would be corrected in the return tie in Hungary. England were hammered 7-1 in Budapest by the magical Magyars. Something was changing in football and Stein knew it. The passing game the Scots gave to the world was being transformed by skilful, fast players who were committed to attacking play. Stein tutored the Celtic reserve side with great success. As the first team floundered in mid table the track suited Stein was on the training pitch getting his ideas across to youngsters like McNeil and Murdoch and led the reserves to an astonishing Cup final win over the powerful Rangers team of the era. The two legged final was won 8-2 by Celtic and most commentators stated that Rangers were lucky it wasn’t double figures.
As the 1960s dawned Stein was attracting interest from several Scottish clubs who saw the potential of this fine young manager. Some have suggested that he saw little prospect of becoming Celtic’s manager with McGrory already in post and the club’s previous 3 managers all being Catholics. Given that Celtic had played mixed teams from their earliest times it is difficult to lay a convincing charge of prejudice at their door. Whatever the truth or otherwise of such assertions, his success with Dunfermline and Hibs soon convinced Bob Kelly that here was the man to rejuvenate Celtic. After some haggling over whether he would be Sean Fallon’s assistant or joint manager, Stein made it clear that neither post would be suitable. He would return as first team Manager providing he had complete control over the playing side of the club. Nothing else would be acceptable. The autocratic Bob Kelly was wise enough to know what was best for Celtic. Jock Stein drove up Kerrydale Street in March 1965 to take charge of Celtic. There was much to do to turn the undoubtedly talented individuals in the squad into a team with a winning mentality.
After a patchy start while he sorted out the first team and reorganised training, Celtic faced his old club Dunfermline in the 1965 cup final. Celtic's legions of fans packed out Hampden Park desperate for a first trophy in 8 long, bitter years. The team were twice behind but 2 goals from Auld and McNeil’s imperious header sealed a memorable triumph.
After the game, Celtic’s jubilant party headed for the Central Hotel in Glasgow for their victory celebration. As thousands of fans sang outside the hotel, Stein called on his old friend and advisor Jimmy Gribben to carry the cup into the hall. Stein often said that nobody knew more about football than Jimmy Gribben and there is no doubt he learned much from the older man. It was almost 14 years since Gribben had recommended Stein to Celtic and the old timer who had given Stein much good advice over the years was suitably delighted that his young protégé gave him such an honoured place.
Stein would ask Gribben to carry another cup for him a couple of years later. That trophy was considerably bigger than the Scottish cup and brought even more delight to the long suffering Celtic fans who had stuck by their team through the tough times. Old Jimmy must have smiled as he thought of the £1200 Celtic had paid for Stein back in 1951. It must surely be the best £1200 the club has ever spent as it began a relationship with one of the true greats of Celtic history. They could never have guessed that the stop gap Centre half would develop into a club legend who put Celtic on the map of world football.
As for Jock, his affinity with Celtic grew and he fought for the club on many fronts. As he is often quoted as saying…
‘Unlike many other Celts, I cannot say that Celtic was my first love, but I can say that it will be my last love.’
As we remember the magnificent achievements of Jock Stein on the 30th anniversary of his passing we are thankful for all he did for Celtic. To take an under achieving Scottish side and make them Champions of Europe is simply incredible. To play football in that expansive, attractive, quintessentially Celtic way simply added to his Legend. He once said to Archie McPherson "We all end up yesterday's men in this business. You're very quickly forgotten." For once I must disagree and say that as long there is a Celtic the memory of Jock Stein will burn bright.
Rest in peace Boss and a million thanks for all you did for Celtic. We’ll never forget you.
Jock Stein (5 October 1922- 10 September 1985)