Last night, at the Hydro, on a special night when the stars came out for the finest football team in the history of this island, amongst the number were men who have managed our club, and a scattering of others, including the man many believe is the greatest manager ever to stand on the touchline.
The thing is, he doesn’t agree with that and never has.
For Alex Ferguson, there will only ever be one who can wear the title of Greatest.
His friend, his confidante, his idol, his mentor, Jock Stein.
When asked, in 2007, if he had the chance to invite four people to his dinner table his first choice was Muhammed Ali, another man who had the title of Greatest, and who is without question the finest sportsman of all time. Second was Stein, and Ferguson was unequivocal about why; he is the greatest manager of all time.
When asked the question more directly in 2013, he was equally certain of the answer.
“I would have happily remained big Jock’s assistant for the rest of my days,” he says, of the spell Jock had on him.
It was amazing that so many of these men – Ferguson, Strachan, O’Neill, Lennon, Rodgers – turned up last night, and spoke so fulsomely about the man. Had it been a night in honour of Jock himself, and not a tribute to the collective greatness of the Lions, even more would have come; the queue would have been round the block just for those going in the stars entrance. Because it was a Lions event – a Celtic event – it was kept in the Family.
Ferguson was never part of this Family, but I always admired and respected him.
Call him an “honorary Celt”, one who played for Rangers but who history tells us was never at home there.
He would have been majestic at Celtic Park, the only man who could have come close to matching the accomplishments of Stein himself. I think it’s a job he would have killed for, but he would have felt nervous in those very big shoes.
Last night his speech was excellent, and full of the love and admiration he had for Stein.
He was not the only one.
The entire night took place in Jock’s shadow.
All of the former bosses who were there have had to live with that; to their credit, none ever found it a burden, rather an inspiration.
That’s true of none more than Brendan, who talks about Jock often and with great fondness.
They all realise that whatever they do they won’t measure up, but for Brendan it seems almost a liberating realisation. He, more than the others, even Martin, who took us as close to Stein’s type of success as any of the others, is forging his own path.
Last year I asked a question on this site, and was amazed at the response; which was the greater manager? Martin or Gordon? It was split more evenly than I thought it might be. Gordon’s star never shone as brightly as Martin’s but his contribution to our club – and obvious affection for it – is more recognised, and respected, than I was aware. His respect for Jock was enormous, and he went on to step into his big shoes again when he took the Scotland job.
Neither Martin nor Neil needed any introduction to the Jock Stein mythos. Martin became the first manager to win a treble since Jock was at the club, and he paid fulsome tribute to the big man and the Lions at the time. Neil comes from a generation of players who would never have worked with or under Jock, but he knew the Stein legend long before coming here as a player far less before he had the keys to the office the big man used to work from.
Winning the big cup was a team effort, of course, and not the preserve of one man, but he is the one man without whom the achievement would have been unthinkable. He was the overseer, the master, the architect of that team and of that victory. Last night was a night in honour of everyone in that side, and who played a part in that success but it’s not for nothing that his picture was constantly on the screens and his image towered above all.
Some of the greatest managers in our history were in that hall last night, joined by one of the greatest in history full stop.
And all knew who loomed largest in the venue, a man not even present, but who will never really be gone.
Ferguson, with the greatest claim to a legacy like that which Jock made, is a man who could hold court in any room, and be confident of being the biggest presence in it. Last night he was just another guest, just another attendee, paying tribute to legends who’s names will stand the test of time.
And he and the rest were there to pay homage to the greatest of them all.
Big Jock needs no higher praise.