The Midas Touch
The summer of 1970 was not an easy one for Celtic or their fans to endure. The loss of the Scottish cup final to Aberdeen in hugely controversial circumstances was followed by the disastrous European Cup Final defeat to Feyenoord in Milan. There were mutterings in the press that Stein was losing his Midas touch and that Celtic who had won the Championship for 5 successive seasons might be usurped by Rangers or even the strong Aberdeen team of the era. With all of this going on at the club, they headed to North America for a post season tour which should have been a celebration with their supporters in Canada and the USA. The tour of 1966 had bonded the players and set the club up for that historic 1966-67 season but the 1970 tour was very different.
Celtic played against local sides and also met English opposition in the shape of Manchester United and the Italians of AS Bari. Auld and Gemmell had been sent home for misbehaviour and Stein was introducing some of the ‘Quality Street Gang’ into the first team. Unknown to the players and supporters was the fact that the Manager had been ‘tapped’ by Manchester United who wanted him to be their new boss. Jock had a good relationship with United and knew Matt Busby well. Indeed Busby, like Stein and his old friend Bill Shankly, was a Lanarkshire man with his roots in the mining communities which produced so many good players and Managers. Stein had a big decision to make and seemed distracted.
The match with AS Bari added to Stein’s stress as the Italians used fair means and foul to stop Celtic playing. Harry Hood recalls that the Celtic players had to fight fire with fire once the kicking started…
‘Before kick off their keeper made a cut throat gesture towards Bobby Lennox and then the battle started. We went into the game as a friendly but after 10 minutes it was self-preservation. Lou Macari, who was getting into the first team was deliberately punched behind the Referee’s back. I was never a dirty player but I went over the ball about twenty times in the first half. It was self-preservation.’
Stein watched the battle unfolding and on the pitch and his anger was growing. He had seen such tactics in South America when Celtic had faced Racing Club 3 years earlier. As the kicking and tripping continued, Harry Hood was relieved to hear the half time whistle. However he did notice an astonishing sight as he trooped off the Park…
‘As the punch ups were going on all over the park, Jock was getting angrier and angrier. So at half time he’d had enough. As soon as the half time whistle went he threw his bag out of the way and dived into the Italian dug-out which emptied pretty damn quick, except for their coach who was pinned down by Jock. All I saw was the big man punching lumps out of him.’
Stein’s retribution on the Italian coach was perhaps understandable and no doubt symptomatic of the stress he was under. Not just the annoyance at AS Bari turning a friendly into a war but perhaps also his frustration at what happened in Milan when the European Cup was lost to Feyenoord. He returned to Scotland before his team and had a big decision to make about where his future lay. He could triple his pay at Manchester United and face the challenges of English football or he could settle at Celtic and set about rebuilding morale at the club. The Lisbon Lions were beginning to break up but emerging talents like Macari, Dalglish, Hay and Connolly suggested he could remould the side and continue his success at Celtic Park. After due consideration, he told Matt Busby that he had an unfinished job to do at Celtic and was staying in Glasgow.
Season 1970-71 saw Celtic take on the new Rangers management team of Willie Waddell and Jock Wallace. Celtic blended the experience of the Lions with the youth of the new boys and swept all before them. Rangers were defeated by a very young Celtic side at Hampden in the Glasgow Cup Final in August 1970. The 3-1 score-line flattered Rangers as youngsters like Quinn, Dalglish, Connelly, Cattenach, Macari and Hay ran them ragged. Celtic would finish Champions for the sixth successive year that season with Aberdeen and St Johnstone their closest challengers. Rangers finished fourth, a huge 15 points behind them, but given the events at Ibrox in January 1971 it is understandable that they had their minds on other things. Stein reacted to the Ibrox tragedy with customary dignity.
Jock Stein led Celtic to the double that season as he would do again in 1972, 74 and 77. He rebuilt Celtic’s confidence after the anguish of Milan and helped them reach further European Cup semi-finals in 1972 and 1974. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Stein accepted Manchester United’s offer in 1970. Sean Fallon would almost certainly have become Celtic’s manager if Stein hadn’t taken him with him to Old Trafford. In any case we’ll never know but as Stein proved in the next few years, he still had the Midas touch and was far from finished. He won a further 8 major honours with Celtic. His tenure was a golden era for Celtic with spectacular successes at home and in Europe and his total of 25 major trophies in 12 seasons remains remarkable. What is more remarkable though was the manner of many of those victories as Stein’s teams played the game in that quintessentially Celtic way. He knew the Celtic fans paid good money to be entertained and he made sure his sides did just that. What’s more the fans adored him not only because he put entertaining and winning teams on the pitch but also because he fought Celtic’s corner with the media, the footballing authorities and the Referees.
As the AS Bari coach found out in 1970, you messed with big Jock at your peril.