The tearful night a giant died: Shock and sorrow after the passing of Jock Stein
23:07 GMT, 9 October 2012
'Every manager dies a little during a game. I’d rather die in a dug-out than moulder away in a director’s box.'
Jock Stein, speaking in 1978
From within Ninian Park, across the Welsh valleys and beyond, the news spread fast. There were no mobile phones and no internet connections, merely television bulletins and word of mouth. On a seismic night in Cardiff, Scotland’s national football team had taken a major step closer to qualifying for their fourth successive World Cup Finals.
Yet the celebrations did not last long. Like revellers being doused down by a water hose, the Tartan Army fell silent as the news passed along the line in dribs and drabs. Jock Stein, the colossus of a man who bestrode the Scottish football scene for the best part of three decades, was dead.
Around Scotland, from the highlands and islands to the sprawling conurbations of the central belt and southwards, small and large groups alike had gathered around analogue television sets. Stein’s injury-stricken Scotland needed a solitary point against an up and coming Welsh side, to reach their Holy Grail of a play-off spot against the winners of the Oceanic group.
When Wales struck an early lead, a nation’s faith was tested. The temperament of late substitute Davie Cooper, striking a critical penalty kick nine minutes from time, proved the answer to five million prayers. Stein, the modern day Midas of the Scottish game, had prevailed once more.
Poignant: Jock Stein sitting in command on the bench in Cardiff – shortly after the final whistle, he suffered a fatal heart attack
As the final minutes played out, a commotion commenced. Medics and bodies crowded around the Scotland manager just seconds after a rogue photographer had been man-handled from the same area, the final victim of Stein’s volcanic temper.
The tale of Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, an avid supporter of the national team, echoes that of so many watching that evening.
‘I was sitting in my front room in Linlithgow and what I remember most was the complete contrast of emotions,’ he said. ‘I had been sitting there with my nose to the television revelling in the qualification for the play-off. At the final whistle, I got up to make a cup of tea as reports were coming over, in a slightly garbled manner, that Jock Stein had collapsed.
‘In truth, the initial reports didn’t especially convey the seriousness of it all.
‘It was unbelievable because Jock Stein was always like a rock. He was all pervasive in Scottish football and seemed almost indestructible.’
No one cared to believe, then, as he crumpled to the trackside watched by millions across the UK, that Scotland’s manager already had one foot in the grave.
In football, as in life, hindsight is the only perfect science. Scotland had lost to Wales in Glasgow earlier in the same qualifying campaign, a damaging 1-0 defeat to an Ian Rush goal, placing a manager unaccustomed to public criticism in an uncomfortable position.
Unchecked claims surfaced that the Scotland manager suffered a mild stroke after that game. What was never in doubt was that he was on medication to mediate the dangers of heart failure, yet had opted against taking his pills in the hours leading up to the Cardiff return; ostensibly, in order to remain focused and unencumbered by possible side effects.
Mentor: Stein stands with his No 2 Alex Ferguson before kick-off
Accounts vary on whether Stein was entirely himself in the approach to the Wales game.
Former Celtic manager Gordon Strachan played on the left of midfield that night, before being replaced by Cooper in Stein’s last major managerial decision.
‘Physically, he didn’t look so well,’ recalled Strachan on the 20th anniversary of Stein’s death in 2005. ‘I’d never seen him like that before.
‘He was a bit grey. I understand now, as a football manager, how you can go a bit that way. But he was perspiring.
‘He was a big man, I know that, but it was just a thought that went in and out of my head very quickly, “Jock’s no’ well today”, and I came back to that thought later when I sat down. “Aye, he wasnae well.”’
When an experienced Wales team, forged by Mike England, triumphed in Glasgow, the Scotland team found themselves being physically bullied. At Ninian Park, Stein was determined to avoid a similar fate.
Richard Gough was detailed to pay extra attention to the rumbustious Manchester United striker Mark Hughes. Roy Aitken and Alex McLeish also played, with Willie Miller sweeping behind. Within three minutes, McLeish was booked for his second clash with Hughes in a demonstration of the no-nonsense approach which would typify this turbo-charged encounter. Yet, in a bustling first half, the Scots could barely contain the Old Trafford striker and Hughes duly claimed his sixth goal on his 10th cap for his country in the 13th minute — Peter Nicholas out-muscling Aitken and Steve Nicol before his low cross was thumped into the net.
Stein had been hampered by the absence of Kenny Dalglish through injury, while midfield anchorman Graeme Souness and Liverpool defensive team-mate Alan Hansen were also missing. To compound the problems, goalkeeper Jim Leighton famously lost a contact lens in the first period and carried no spares with him. The matter proved a source of consternation to Alex Ferguson, Scotland’s assistant manager and Leighton’s club manager with Aberdeen. Later, Ferguson reported to having no idea that the taciturn Leighton even wore contacts.
‘At that stage, the players realised nothing,’ stated Maurice Malpas, at the time a young full-back with Dundee United. ‘To this day, I don’t know if he just forgot to bring a spare pair, but Alan Rough went on anyway. There was mayhem in the dressing room when this emerged, but in terms of big Jock there was no indication that he was poorly. To my recollection, he performed the half-time team talk for a start. But like all the players, I was engrossed in the game, that’s just what you do as a player.’
Later, Ferguson would describe some rare and highly unusual signs of confusion within Stein at the interval; the first true indication something might be going awry. In the past, Stein would have commanded his half-time dressing room like a prowling bear, urging, cajoling and rebuking the likes of Leighton for their lack of foresight. Not this time.
Grim news: Ferguson tells Scotland players of Stein's sudden death
As the second half began, Wales remained comfortable. After an hour Stein acted decisively — introducing enigmatic Rangers winger Cooper for Strachan on the left flank.
Cooper effectively changed the game, injecting urgency, trickery and pace into Scotland’s attacking efforts. Suddenly, the Welsh looked vulnerable. In the 80th minute, a Nicol cross was nodded down by Graeme Sharp to David Speedie, whose attempt on goal was handled by Welsh defender David Phillips. It was, by any reckoning, a harsh award. No match, perhaps, for the Joe Jordan ‘handball’ which had robbed the Welsh in similar fashion in 1977, yet Dutch referee Johannes Keizer pointed immediately to the spot in any case.
Cooper’s composed and exemplary penalty, in the circumstances, prompted a volcanic eruption in the Scotland fans packed dangerously close together in terracing behind the goal.
In some respects, the goal served to increase and compound, rather than reduce, the tension. Ernie Walker went to the boardroom in search of alcoholic relief, only to be told firmly that the bar was closed until after the final whistle.
He and squad captain Souness were directed to another VIP room where the pouring of large gin and tonics was a shaky, nervy affair.
Back on the touchline, meanwhile, Stein was rising to his feet to remonstrate with a photographer.
‘There was a bit of a commotion, then it all calmed down again,’ Strachan recalled. ‘Then, next minute, there were a lot of people around.
‘I looked over and thought: “What’s going on here” And that was it. The words I remember are: “Jock’s no’ well. There’s something wrong with his heart.”’
Stein was captured on camera being carried down the wood-panelled, cramped tunnel by four uniformed policemen.
Jubilant, the players thronged back to the cramped dressing room of the old stadium to be met with the immediate sense of displacement. Something, they instinctively sensed, was wrong. Willie Miller was caught by ITV interviewer Martin Tyler in the tunnel, his facial expression visibly altering as the broadcaster confirmed the news of Stein’s collapse.
‘Bizarre is the only word to describe it really,’ recalled Malpas. ‘I was absolutely elated because, to all intents and purposes, we had qualified and, for me, it would be my first World Cup. But, right away, we sensed something wasn’t right.
Giant of the game: Stein
‘The backroom staff would normally be there waiting to pat you on the back, but they had all disappeared. Someone, I think it was Alex Ferguson, came in to tell us Jock had suffered a heart attack and everything fell silent. I remember seeing Jimmy Steele, the masseur, who was really close to Jock and he was absolutely distraught.’
In the treatment room, Walker and SFA
director Bill Dickie held Stein upright while Doctor Stewart Hillis
administered a jag to ease his distress. Stein’s last words to Walker
were: ‘I’m alright Ernie.’ Seconds later, the ambulance men, trying to
move the vast figure onto a stretcher, reported he was dead.
went from one extreme to the next,’ Malpas said. ‘During the game we
had no idea what was happening. Other people were prepared for the news
by watching it unfold on television, not us. I was as high as a kite
and now, suddenly, we were brought back to earth by life. Or by the end
of a life, as it transpired.
‘All we had been preoccupied with was qualifying and now, suddenly that seemed totally immaterial. It didn’t matter a damn.’
learned the grim extent of Stein’s collapse when Souness emerged into
the corridor, eyes glistening to state baldly: ‘He’s gone.’
Later, at Edinburgh Airport, an early morning hush descended over the party of players, officials and press men who collected their belongings before making for home.
As the last holdall was lifted from the baggage carousel, a solitary item of luggage remained, spinning forlornly on the belt.
An appeal from an airport handler found no takers. A cursory scan inside revealed a book, some pills, a bottle of white wine and a letter addressed to ‘J Stein esq’.
These days, the record books show Stein to have the second best record of any Scotland coach. A run of 68 games brought 30 wins, 13 draws and 25 defeats; statistics bettered only by Craig Brown. Craig Levein can but aspire to that kind of record.
Ninian Park, where Stein collapsed, is no more. The old home of Cardiff City was bulldozed to make way for the soulless new arena across the road where Scotland will play on Friday night. Yet, Stein’s memory and legacy have stood the test of time and continue to outlive mere bricks and mortar.
Extracts taken from: Ten Days That Shook Scotland (Fort Publishing).