TOMMY Gemmell’s description of Jock Stein in his new book All The Best written with Alex Gordon perhaps gives some indication of the loyalty the players felt toward their former manager despite their own careers being affected by their boss’s decisions.
“Jock Stein lied to me almost every day for over two years. He ditched me from the first team on the day of a cup final. He dropped me into the reserves without warning. He thought nothing of berating me in front of my colleagues.
"He booted me out of the club I adored. He deprived me of the opportunity of saying a last farewell to the supporters I rated – and still rate – the best in the world.
" I loved that man.”
The devotion to which Gemmell and the Lisbon Lions felt and the remaining members still feel towards Jock Stein is compelling, reading his words in light of the disrespectful treatment David Moyes suffered from his players at Manchester United suggests how much the game has changed.
It’s heartening to hear a former player speak about love and admiration towards Big Jock despite personal cost.
France’s former manager Raymond Domenech consulted astrology when picking his team, while this is something the Big Man would have frowned upon Gemmell points out that Mr Stein moved in “mysterious ways” and had “an aura” when he walked into the room.
Without doubt the players often found him hard to fathom and there are many actions Big Tam still finds difficult to reconcile. What’s fascinating is the lengths of devotion from the Lisbon Lions, they clearly put their loyalty to Mr Stein and love of Celtic above their own well-being and careers, leaving a legacy impossible to follow.
In 2002 Jimmy Johnstone was voted Celtic’s greatest ever player by fans, aside from his talent, it’s fair to say that Celtic supporters will never tire of reading about the player’s antics but what comes across here is how his exit from the club profoundly affected him.
When Jinky signed for Dundee, he told Gemmell, his manager at the club, that if he drew Celtic in the cup he wouldn’t turn up and that he could never play against Celtic.
“He meant it too”, confirms Big Tam. Post Celtic, Johnstone couldn’t get his head around the fact that he was no longer a Hoops player and was desperate for a last hurrah that would never come.
There are some waves of regret over Gemmell’s 18 international caps, he suggests Big Jock had no interest in his players turning out for international duty, the gaffer’s priority was Celtic. Scotland were nothing more than an inconvenience for the ‘Boss’.
Gemmell explained that Stein “restricted my international appearances for Scotland to a mere 18. No doubt a lot of people will find it difficult to comprehend or even believe that statement. Take it from me, it’s the truth.”
Gemmell doesn’t write bitterness, his points are often made through humour. Jock Stein no doubt took advantage of the SFA’s naivety; on being called for international duty he would tell Gemmell: “Say you’ve got a hamstring or something.”
The Celtic boss would even provide a financial incentive not to play for Scotland. The money didn’t matter to Gemmell, as he points out: “You can’t buy those sort of memories; pride doesn’t have a price.”
The player who scored in both of Celtic’s European Cup finals wants the reader to understand how much it would have meant for him to play more often for Scotland but the Celtic gaffer provided a “thinly-veiled threat” that the player might well lose their club place if they did.
With that in mind it’s worth asking the question, beyond a great love for Celtic – why did the players tolerate it? It all goes back to the love and respect they had for the man they continue to call Mr Stein, humour is what bonded him to his players and it’s the golden thread that runs through memories of the man – the optimism is literally bursting out of people when they discuss Mr Stein.
He clearly got his players laughing as a uniting mechanism but he it also gave him a power and social capital, it capitulated the pressure the team were under and created a healthy atmosphere while strengthening a tight and creative squad.
When players would challenge the Celtic boss about low wages, he would simply wave them away with his big paw or a few choice words, even with a negative response the team would fall about laughing at his delivery, even in the most stressful moments and before the biggest games.
The Big Man’s influence on Scottish football and life continues to be discussed and debated regularly, last week BBC Alba delivered a documentary Jock Stein which was warmly received by Celtic supporters.
Perhaps what was most compelling in this documentary was seeing how Celtic’s old adversary Graeme Souness was affected by his death. As a Scotland player he witnessed Mr Stein’s dying moments after he suffered a heart attack at Ninian Park on September 10 1985.
Vast numbers of Celtic supporters took to forums and social media to pay tribute to Souness’ reflections. Message boards and fan forums are often havens for negativity so it really does say a lot for the support, once again fans are showing their mark of class by displaying how humanitarian values can transcend deep historical rivalries.
As always the Celtic support continue to exceed expectations and set themselves apart, their behaviour online as much as in the terraces continues to win the club new fans and admirers across the globe, their positivity is infectious and attractive to those unfamiliar with the notion that to support Celtic is not just to be a fan of a football team but to support a way of life.
Richard Purden is the author of We Are Celtic Supporters and Faithfull Through and Through.
All the Best by Tommy Gemmell and Alex Gordon is out now on CQN Books.