In The Shadow of Stein

William Shakespeare, that quintessential Englishman, coined perhaps the most famous quote there is about greatness, when he said “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” He was right. Winston Churchill, the great icon of Britishness, said “Good and great are seldom in the same man.” He too was right, but his somewhat pessimistic outlook was coloured by the times. He lived in a world where the appellation was attached to men like Stalin, even, by some, to Hitler. He also knew the heart of darkness, as he was, himself, no stranger to its seductive ways.

Churchill never knew John “Jock” Stein. Had he done so, he would certainly have recognised the man as one of the select few in whom the good and the great lived in harmony.  This was a man who was not born great, but certainly achieved greatness. Stein’s life was a story of triumph over adversity, and the immense good fortune which smiled on us is that his extraordinary skills found their way to our club, and so his triumph became ours, his story became our own and at its heights he took us to the heights, and what heights they proved to be.

Richard Nixon didn’t know Jock either, but he too would have recognised the strength of the man, the mould from which he was cast. Nixon’s resignation speech, in which he extolled the virtues of struggle, would have resonated with the Big Man as surely as the sounds, sights and smells of his childhood, for Nixon too was a small town nobody who, by skill, and the force of his will, became a somebody. That he abused and wasted those skills is a minor matter; Stein would have recognised a fellow traveller, a man who understood the battlefield.

Nixon’s most remembered quote goes; “The greatness comes not when things go always good for you. But the greatness comes when you’re really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes. Because only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” The man who’s journey took him from the mines of Lanarkshire to that sun-kissed afternoon in May 1967, in the Estádio Nacional, would have smiled, and understood.

Stein was born in 1922, in the mining town of Burnbank. He went to work in a carpet factory straight from school and then, as many had done before him, he went to the mines. In 1940 his developing skill on a football pitch attracted Burnbank Athletic, but his father’s objections saw him sign instead for the Blantyre Vics. Two years later, he appeared as a trialist at Albion Rovers, who saw his potential and signed him up for his first professional contract.

To say his early career was disappointing is an understatement. The depth of the valley in which he found himself can be surmised by knowing that a few years later, with Stein now at Llanelli, he considered quitting the game altogether, and settling for the life so many of his friends and family had, by circumstances and the limitations of the time, been bricked up in, a life down in the pits. That he was willing to do it is a clear indication of how out of love with the beautiful game he was at the time.

Fortune has never smiled so much on a person, or on our club, than it did then. At that time our reserve coach was a man named Jimmy Gribben. He saw something in Stein and prompted the club to pay £1,200 for him. Not until Craig Whyte acquired Rangers for £1 did such a small amount of money act as the catalyst for such dramatic changes in Scottish football as were about to unfold.

Stein’s coming to Celtic was, to paraphrase Tolkien’s Gandalf, “like the falling of small stones that start an avalanche.” It changed everything.

His time at Celtic elevated his career, and broadened those horizons even further. He tasted success as a captain, as a leader of men, before he ever considered management an option. When his career on the pitch was cut short by injury, a crisis which might have plunged another man back into the deep valleys from which he’d struggled to emerge, he could not have guessed what fate had in store.

In the darkness of those days, without knowing it, he was on the long, winding path to the top of the mountain. It was January, 1957.

In the years which followed he took the skills he had learned on the pitch and those he had learned off of it, and he honed them until they were as perfect, as hard and sharp, as beautifully polished diamonds. After a stint in charge of the Celtic Reserves, he cut his managerial teeth at Dunfermline. They were mired in a relegation struggle when he took charge. Eighteen months later they were the Scottish Cup holders and competing in the quarter finals of the European Cup Winners Cup.

There were offers from England, which he rejected. However, when Hibernian came calling he knew it was the right move, and he moved on.

His stay at the Edinburgh side was short, roughly a year, but when he left the club, which had been mired in the bottom half of the league, they were top of the table and in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup. The year was 1965. His ambitions were greater than could be realised at Easter Road. Celtic was in his blood. It was the only job he truly wanted.

When the chance came, he was ready. There were no doubts, no looking back. He could feel greatness tug at his consciousness. He could hear the great, steady, drumbeat of history about to be made.

To write about the triumphs which followed is almost to diminish them. They transcend mere words on paper. They stand as their own testimony to the greatness of the man, to the sheer force of his will and personality, and the shadow they still cast is its own memorial to what he achieved. No-one in the Scottish game will ever have that kind of success again. No man ever so perfectly came to encapsulate an entire footballing institution, or left such a profound mark on it. He epitomises everything the modern Celtic is and tries to be, and even trying to imagine the story of Celtic without him is like attempting to construct an alternative history for Rome, removed of the influence of Julius Caesar. Some men are forged by the times in which they live. Others bend time to their own clock and make the world anew. Jock Stein was such a man.

On 10 September 1985, he took the Scottish national team to Cardiff, to play in a World Cup qualifying game. There, he suffered a heart attack and died in the dressing room at Ninian Park. No-one will ever forget the moment they heard the great man had gone. The toughest men in football openly wept as they spoke of him, as they recalled his life, and his talents, and his generosity and his spirit. His death shocked, and unified, the whole of this nation in grief. All understood that someone truly inspirational, and wonderful, had been lost, and the tributes which came in, from all across the world, reflected his stature and the respect, and love, in which he was held everywhere that people knew his name. He was a wonder of the world. He was unique.

George Patton once said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” He was talking about courage, about commitment, about those who loved so much they gave everything they had. He was talking about those whose lives inspire us to do better in our own, those who point the way to a better world for us all. He was talking about those who made sacrifices, those who paid the price, those who fought for, and won, the glory. Patton would have recognised Stein, would have exalted Stein, would have been proud to call him a soldier, a companion, a friend and perhaps even an inspiration. He was a warrior, a leader, a champion. He was a great man, but he was also a good man.

On Friday, there will be some amongst the Scotland support who will travel to Wales with the bitter memory in their hearts of that awful night when a legend was lost. Ninian Park is no longer there, but a plaque on the wall beside the gates of the Cardiff City Stadium where the game will be played honours him, and affords every fan the opportunity to pay his or her respects to the greatest manager the Scottish game has ever known.

Earlier this week, many of us paid tribute to him on our blogs and Facebook pages, on what would have been his 90th birthday. Many who did so know him only from books, and from the memories of those who are older. Some of them were lucky enough to meet the man one to one, and those who did remember him with great affection, even love.

The poet Thomas Campbell said “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die” and in that sense Bill Shankly was right when he said, in the aftermath of that glorious day in Lisbon, “John, you’re immortal now.” For his triumphs will live forever, and his loss will be mourned forever. His goodness, and greatness, will be treasured forever.

We will forever be in his shadow, and forever in his debt.

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James Forrest

James Forrest is a writer and blogger from Glasgow, and the author of two books, Fragments and Believers, which are available on Amazon.

One thought on “In The Shadow of Stein

  • 18 October, 2012 at 9:52 am

    I hesitate to correct such a learned writer as yourself but I don’t think your quote is by Shakespeare but by one of the English essayists-either Francis Bacon or Charles Lamb. Please correct me if I am wrong.

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