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Honouring Jock: Modern Celtic’s Founding Father

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I was born in 1976, the year Celtic’s nine in a row came to an end, the year after Jock Stein had almost died in a horrific car crash.

1976 was the last year in which the great man was in full command of the horizon at Celtic Park., the last year in which he was the lynchpin of the whole club, the last year of the legend.

I missed all of it, the most glorious years in the history of Celtic. I was born as the club was starting to imagine life without him; it must have been intensely difficult for supporters, players and officials alike not to have this colossus in their lives.

I never knew any of it, but the man has loomed large in my life nonetheless; an incredible thing to say about someone who died when I was still only nine years old.

I remember that night like it was yesterday though; it was the first time I ever saw my parents cry.

That’s the impact the great man had on them, and on the family I grew up in, worshiping him and the club he made Champions of Europe like old time religion.

Would I have been the same without the enormous influence he exerted on them, and their generation?

Probably, because my old man is the very definition of a die-hard and has quite literally followed the club his whole life … but I know that my upbringing has been coloured by Jock’s influence just as surely as if I’d been there myself.

It is impossible to over-state how much respect, admiration and love I have for that man, the man who did what few would have believed possible; he turned a Scottish club into one of the greatest football teams there has ever been, and I say that with no equivocation.

Stein’s team beat everyone; it’s as simple as that.

Had the playing field been level, had we not been subject to the most appalling brutality ever meted out to a side playing in the Intercontinental Cup – and had we not reacted in kind – we would have taken Racing Club of Buenos Aires as surely as we took Inter and, following them, the mighty Real Madrid in what was billed a simple testimonial for Alfredo De Stefano but was, in fact, the Spanish giants’ effort to put us in our place and re-assert themselves as the dominant force on the continent.

Jimmy Johnstone ran the show on the pitch that night, but it was Stein who planned the strategy, and who held the mastery over his opposite number, the great Miguel Munoz, himself the finest manager in their history.

Nothing speaks to the greatness of Stein more than that, and a trophy haul that is the envy of almost every coach in world football.

Some will say that Alex Ferguson was a finer manager, that he proved it time and again, winning European trophies on both sides of the border, but Sir Alex himself remained in awe of Jock to the end of his managerial career.

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The Big Man is one of those people I feel less confident writing about than if I’d experienced his success and impact myself.

I feel the same way about a lot of my genuine heroes, guys like John F Kennedy, those who I was born too late to ever properly experience and about whom not thousands but millions of words already exist, many of them written by those who had a much closer view on the action than I was ever blessed to have.

Oh, I could recount his endeavours, list the trophies he won, talk about his legendry man management skills and his eye for talent … but none of what I write will illuminate him in a way that hasn’t been done before, and I have no really personal story to tell about him and the way he drove our club forward and became its irreplaceable icon.

For all that, I worship him for those achievements and I remain in awe of them.

I think of Jock as the founding father of the modern Celtic, in the way many Americans think of Lincoln as the pre-eminent figure in the founding of the modern United States, although fifteen other men had assumed the office of President before he took it up.

Jock Stein towers over Celtic, and with the statue outside our ground, the stand that bears his name, the pictures and paintings of him that adorn the walls and the bronze bust of him as you walk through the main doors, we have our very own monuments to his greatness, our own Lincoln Memorials, to remind us of what he accomplished.

All of that must be intimidating for those who’ve had to follow in his footsteps.

It may even be a little unfair on them, because he was a man of unique gifts, a true one off, and football has changed so much since his day.

And if they have to live in the shadow his very real presence around Celtic Park still casts, imagine how it must be for those who remain gnawed with envy, those who’ve tried to emulate what he and our club did in that magnificent year of 1967, when we swept aside everything that stood in our way to reach the pinnacle of our success and renown.

Celtic would exist today without him, as America would exist without its greatest President.

I know that. It’s a fact.

But it would have been somehow less, and not just in terms of stature.

Some of the magic, the mythology, would be different.

It’s hard to say just how, but those changes would have been profound.

Only truly great men can say that not only did they make history but that they changed its very direction, and when it comes to Celtic Jock Stein accomplished that and a hell of a lot more.

The debt this club owes him won’t be repaid no matter how many buildings bear his name, no matter how many flags we fly, no matter how many statues we commission.

Celtic is not alone in owing him that debt.

It was wonderful that Dunfermline fans turned out today in their own mark of respect to the man who did so much for their club, and for Scottish football as a whole.

Hell, Jock gave his life for our national sport – a price that was too high, too high by far – leading us into a World Cup play-off in his final act as a manager, and the esteem in which he is held, everywhere, by everyone who cares about the game, is enormous.

It is especially fitting that today’s match was played for the victims of the current refugee crisis.

Big Jock was one of the many not from the Celtic tribe who voluntarily crossed big dividing lines to become part of this Family, because he knew that it would welcome him, that it would respect him, that it would love him, because that is the ethos on which our club was born.

So we carry on today, in that spirit, remembering that our club was founded by and for the refugee, that we were the immigrants once and that we have always held the door open for those who are in need.

Congratulations to everyone who took part.

The Big Man would have been humbled, and proud, by the honour and moved by the gesture.

This is what makes us special.

He knew that.

He became part of it, and is now interwoven in the DNA of Celtic itself.

Whoever said that what you’ve never had you don’t miss didn’t know what they were talking about.

On Thursday it will be 30 years since he passed.

He is still missed, even by those, like me, who were born too late.

Will we ever see his like again?

Will I ever see someone scale his heights?

I doubt it, but I am grateful just knowing he was here, even if it was only for a short time, even if I never got to experience it for myself, because in that time what he did was momentous and it endures, and it always will as long as Celtic exists.

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