Jock Stein: From miner to European champion

Fifty years ago the visionary manager led Glasgow Celtic to their greatest ever victory

The statule in honour of  Jock Stein outside Celtic Park in Glasgow. Photograph:  Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The statule in honour of Jock Stein outside Celtic Park in Glasgow. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

 

When Jock Stein returned to manage Celtic in March 1965, the club had gone almost eight years without a trophy.

A little over two years later, they were Britain’s first champions of Europe having swept all before them in an unprecedented season of success.

Stein took over a club which had only won three league titles since 1926. The high point in those years had been 1953-54, when Stein captained Celtic to the double. But neither the league nor Scottish Cup would be won again until he returned in a different capacity.

The turnaround was remarkable and swift, if not immediate. Stein’s mid-table side lost to St Johnstone, Hibernian, Falkirk (a 6-2 thrashing) and Partick Thistle in his first six weeks in charge, but they rose to the occasion by beating Motherwell 3-0 in a Scottish Cup semi-final replay.

That set up a final against Dunfermline on April 24th. The Hoops twice trailed but Billy McNeill headed a late winner to seal a 3-2 victory and reacquaint Celtic with silverware. The relationship was to prove lasting.

Stein’s formative years in the Lanarkshire mining community of Burnbank shaped his football career. Born in 1922, he followed his father and grandfather down the pits aged 16, spending 11 years as a miner before becoming a full-time professional footballer.

When he left his first job he knew he would “never be alongside better men”. Stein’s sense of teamwork was forged in the sheer darkness underneath the ground, where men would make sure all their colleagues’ work was finished before they themselves ventured out into the light.

His playing career started in the unassuming environs of part-time Albion Rovers before he left the pits behind and moved to ambitious non-league side Llanelli.

He joined Celtic two years later aged 29, initially earmarked for their reserves, but his force of personality along with an injury to Sean Fallon, his future right-hand man, ultimately saw him promoted to first-team captain.

Ball work

Stein was made reserve-team manager in 1957. A decade before leading them to European Cup glory, he was coaching the likes of McNeill, John Clark and Bertie Auld, who was immediately struck by Stein’s visionary approach. In those days footballers were starved of the ball in a fitness-based training regime, but Stein made ball work and tactics central to his methods.

Stein moved on to manage relegation-threatened Dunfermline in 1960, where he won his first six matches before leading the Fifers to a Scottish Cup final win over Celtic a year later.

After a successful spell at Hibernian, Stein returned to Parkhead after being promised full control of team affairs. He was Celtic’s fourth manager and the first non-Catholic to hold the position – his religion had previously been viewed as an obstacle to him landing the job.

He was more than happy to keep on signing both Catholics and Protestants while city rivals Rangers continued with their sectarian recruitment policy.

Success flowed from that initial cup triumph. Celtic won the title and League Cup in Stein’s first full season and lost to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

The next campaign eclipsed anything the club had achieved or are likely to achieve again. Celtic won five trophies including the Glasgow Cup, no mean feat given first-round opponents Rangers went on to reach the European Cup Winners’ Cup final, losing to Bayern Munich.

Working man

That Rangers won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1972 during Celtic’s run of nine consecutive titles highlights the scale of their achievements under Stein, but the list of honours only tells a fraction of the story.

That Lisbon night 50 years ago encapsulated his mantra: to win and to entertain. Stein, who was later on the verge of leading Scotland to a second World Cup finals when he died from a heart attack in 1985, knew as well as anyone what sacrifices the working man made to pay into football grounds and the responsibility he and his players had to provide respite from the harsh conditions.

Speaking to the Observer’s Hugh McIlvanney before the final, Stein admitted he felt a duty to attack.

“Just to be involved in an occasion like this is a tremendous honour and we think it puts an obligation on us,” he said. “We can be as hard and as professional as anybody, but I mean it when I say we don’t just want to win this cup. We want to win it by playing good football, to make neutrals glad we’ve done it, glad to remember how we did it.”

Vindication was emphatic. Celtic responded to conceding from a controversial early penalty by overwhelming Inter, who were going for a third European Cup in four years, with wave after wave of attack.

It was fitting that the equaliser came from Tommy Gemmell, one of football’s first overlapping full-backs, and the same player helped set up Stevie Chalmers’ winner after a penalty-box shimmy that looked equally ahead of its time.

Stein had triumphed against Helenio Herrera, the man who had taken the defensive ‘Catenaccio’ approach to successful but unpopular extremes.

And, as Stein said himself: “We did it by playing football. Pure, beautiful, inventive football.”

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