THEY were just four words but they conferred on one man his elevation to football’s Mount Olympus.
“John, you’re immortal now.” Billy Shankly’s ardent salute to Jock Stein on the team bus leaving the Estadio Nacional has long been woven into the fabric of that magical, sun-kissed night in Lisbon.
The comment was, so the story goes, overheard by Bertie Auld. Wee Bertie then, without any help from social meeja, turned the remark from a heartfelt exchange between friends to a form of Holy Writ by passing it down the line of history.
Did Shankly say it? Does it matter? Damn right it doesn’t. Apocryphal or not, it was true either way. Stein’s messianic legacy inside the Parkhead pantheon was assured the second West German referee Kurt Tschenscher blew his full-time whistle on May 25, 1967.
Celtic 2 Inter Milan 1. A scoreline that, like Bobby Thomson’s famous game-winning home run for the New York Giants in 1951, was heard all round the world and one that gave birth to The Lisbon Lions. And Stein was the Alpha Male at the head of the pride… proud and pugnacious and fiercely protective of Bhoys he had turned into men as much by the sheer indomitable will of his personality.
Minutes after the game ended, he took time out from the celebrations to chide the English media for having been so eager to write off his team’s chances during the build-up. “You said we had no chance, but I knew we had every chance,” he said.
Stein was, alongside Shankly at Liverpool and Matt Busby at Manchester United, part of a Scottish triumvirate that was the beating heart of British football.
All three were hewn from similar, tough, working class West of Scotland backgrounds.
They grew up in the shadow of the pits – and each of them tasted life in the grim darkness of a mineshaft before they found their true calling in football.
Stein once described his fellow pit workers, covered from top-to-bottom in coal and groping in the darkness ‘the best friends you will ever have’.
By 1967, Shankly and Busby were sculpting their own legend down south. But it was Stein, perhaps least likely of each of them, who would scale the heights of European football first.
Stein had returned to the Celtic fold in March 1965, tasked with resurrecting a moribund giant that had failed to win a league title for 12 long years. The Parkhead board were looking for the vital spark that would transform stale fortunes and in Stein they saw a former skipper, a Celtic man and someone who could shape a football revolution.
Stein first joined Celtic in 1951 from Welsh minnows Llanelli and right away displayed the kind of officer credentials that marked him out as a leader of men.
He might not have been the best defender at the club, but he was imbued with the kind of authority given to so few.
As captain, he led Celtic to a league and Scottish Cup double in 1953-54. As a reward for their achievement, the club paid for all of the players to attend the 1954 Fifa World Cup in Switzerland.
The year before Celtic had also sent their players to watch the England v Hungary match in 1953 and Stein, already an inveterate football thinker, was mesmerised by the magical and majestic Magyars of Ference Puskas and Sandor Kocsis. Billed as the match of the century, Hungary swept England aside 6-3 in a brilliant display of attacking football. Watching from the sidelines, it was a lightbulb moment for Stein who, in that 90 minutes, glimpsed the only way to play the Beautiful Game.
Attack. Attack. Attack. A decade later Stein would be given a mandate to roll out these same footballing virtues on his return to Parkhead and at the same time give birth to the guiding principle of playing football The Celtic Way, a binding covenant between players and supporters. Weeks after taking the Parkhead reins, Celtic would win the Scottish Cup for the first time in a decade.
The next season, 1965-66, they reclaimed the league from Rangers. And 12 months later, a team fashioned together from within a 50-mile radius, would be crowned kings of Europe using the same kind of siege tactics to outfox Inter Milan’s wily coach Helenio Herrrera. Aside from being a landmark victory, it was also a triumph of Scottish swagger over Italian defensive dogma, of the Celtic Way over the fortress-style football of the Cattenachio. By any measure it was a gargantuan achievement, one which, had it been a standalone triumph, would have been enough to secure Stein’s Celtic legend.
Bill Shankly, who never won the European Cup with Liverpool, certainly knew it. Matt Busby would get his hands on the famous jug-eared trophy a year later when Manchester United beat Benfica at Wembley.
But Stein’s accomplishments in the years that followed at Celtic – another European Cup Final, nine successive domestic titles, six Scottish Cup triumphs and six League Cup wins – ensured that he was in a league of his own as the doyen of football managers until, perhaps, the emergence of the sorcerer’s apprentice in the shape of one Alex Ferguson emerged through the Highland mist to weave his own magic spell at Aberdeen and then Old Trafford.
Stein was 44 when he took over the managerial reins at Celtic from Jimmy McGrory after having honed his skills as manager at Dunfermline and Hibernian, a seasoned football man who insisted that the Parkhead board – and especially club chairman Robert Kelly, who was rumoured to pick the team – relinquish the total control they had exercised over McGrory if they wanted to become a serious force in the game. His approach in the weeks that followed introduced new school thinking to an old school club – and his players, with an average age of 26, loved the dynamism of regime change that saw Stein arrive as a force of nurture while they, under his guidance, were transformed into a force of nature.
In every sense, he was a man’s man, bluff, gruff, straight-forward, crabby, terse, occasionally duplicitious, supportive, but above all he was a warrior winner, a key quality he instilled in a team who would pull off the footballing equivalent of scaling Everest without oxygen – and then having a kickabout on the summit for the sheer unbridled joy of it.
His on-field lieutenant Billy McNeill once said: “Everything changed under Jock. He made that team and took us to heights none of us could ever have imagined. Lisbon was obviously a major career high for a lot of us but in a lot of ways it was only the start. And Jock was the man who made it happen. Celtic owe him a debt that can never be repaid.”
Shankly would surely have agreed.