I’m not going to retell the stories to you now. You probably know most of the stories I would tell. Whether it’s Jock the player coming to Celtic from Llanelli and going on to captain the side, or Jock the manager properly taking charge of a Celtic team and turning them from Scottish League also-rans into European Champions, or even Jock the Scotland coach, picking up the pieces left after Argentina and restoring the faith of the Tartan Army. These stories have been told many times, and will rightly be told many, many more. Because that’s what we do. “If you know your history it’s enough to make you heart go…” well, you know the rest.
Jock was Celtic’s greatest ever manager. The fans voted him as such. To be honest, there was only really one other manager who could come close – Willie Maley – and due to the lack of a structured European competition in Maley’s day it’s very difficult to properly compare the two. Most would just accept that Maley would have at least held his own in a European competition and keep the comparisons to domestic football. On that front Stein’s nine-in-a-row would seem to beat Maley’s six-in-a-row by three, though both were fantastic achievements not to be sneezed at.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of his death, Celtic have announced that a statue of Stein will be joining the statues of Celtic founder Brother Walfrid and Celtic’s greatest ever player Jimmy Johnstone at the doors of Celtic Park. I would say that the reaction to this has been universal. “About time too” seems to be the favourite response from the Celtic fans I’ve spoken to, and probably echoes my own feelings on the matter.
Another comment I’ve heard from a couple of people has been “won’t it be a bit crowded out there now?” It’s true that most football teams would only really have the one statue. But as we’re so fond of pointing out, we’re not most football teams. Personally I think having our founder, our best manager and our best player immortalised is in keeping with the traditions of Celtic. “If you know your history…” is certainly a lot easier to keep going through the generations when young bhoys and ghirls are tugging on your jacket asking “who’s the statue?”
But at the same time I find myself wondering. Leaving Brother Walfrid aside as an exception (you can only be founded once after all), the other two statues are from an era that started 45 years ago now. In another 45 years, will we be calling for more statues to be erected? The sad fact is, I’m not sure we will. And it won’t be due to over-crowding of the entrance.
Jock Stein was only our fourth manager. In Tony Mowbray we’re now up to our sixteenth – assuming you count Dalglish as interim manager and only count McNeill once despite taking the job twice. Stein was able to improve on Maley, McStay and McGrory. While following Maley must have been quite a difficult task, the men that have followed Stein have had it a lot tougher. Every single one of them has been measured according to his standard. Some have been found to be woefully inadequate in that comparison, while others have at least managed to be referred to as “the best Celtic manager since Jock Stein”. Truth is, short of winning a European trophy – and lets be honest, it would need to be the big one – no one at Celtic is ever going to get there.
Take Martin O’Neill. We had five seasons from him. Five seasons where we saw our team lift the treble, whitewash Rangers, beat some terrific teams at home in the Champions League, get to the UEFA Cup final in Seville, and – my personal favourite – knocked Barcelona out of the UEFA Cup.
Will we be calling for a statue of O’Neill in 45 years time? I doubt it. I have no doubt we’ll be telling the stories about what he did. Indeed, given the current fortunes of the two teams in question I think there might be one of two comments along the lines of:
You knocked Barcelona out? Aye right, pull the other one it’s got bells on.”
But we were there. We saw it, we loved every minute of it and sang ourselves hoarse leaving the Camp Nou before going to Ibrox and throwing beachballs a few days later… and beating them of course. For the second season in a row I might add.
The truth is, it’s very difficult for any Celtic manager to live up to the expectation. O’Neill came in at a time where we were down. He lifted us to heights we hadn’t seen in over 30 years and while he never quite reached the same heights as that team, it was high enough for us. We were “punching above our weight” to quote the man himself. O’Neill did a wonderful job where it was required, but one that will get him a statue? Probably not, sorry Martin.
What about the players? That’s where you’ll hear greater debate after all. Jimmy Johnstone may have been voted the Greatest Ever Celt, but you’ll still hear arguments in favour of others who wore the hoops. The difference in styles and playing positions makes it almost impossible to truly define it of course. So lets simplify it a bit by focusing not on styles or positions, but on a single number.
The number seven was Jinky’s favoured number. It’s the one we all associate with him. When Celtic opened a restaurant at the stadium, that was the number they chose for it’s name. Indeed, Jinky was there for the opening of it, along side two other players who wore that number for Celtic – Kenny Dalglish and Henrik Larsson. Three of Celtic’s greatest ever eleven, again as voted by the fans.
So… would King Kenny get a statue? I doubt it. Yes, he was a fantastic player. Yes, his leaving in 1977 for Liverpool affected my old man so badly that he claims to have been boycotting the old board long before it was fashionable. Indeed, it was 14 years before he would set foot in Celtic Park again when he finally took me for not just my first Celtic game but my first (and as it turned out only) visit to the Jungle.
But it’s not his playing career that would stop him getting that statue. It’s his brief return in 1999 that would probably do that. Some would argue that Dalglish gave O’Neill a platform from which to work on. Others would argue the platform Venglos left was better and he hadn’t spent millions of pounds buying a load of Scheidt. Admittedly on that last point you could argue we clawed that back years later from the profit made on Petrov – a man brought in on the cheap by that “Dream Team”. What isn’t up for debate as far as Dalglish is concerned was the way he brought in the inexperienced Barnes and more or less left him to it. We all remember the “golfing holiday”… sorry, “scouting trips to Spain” stories. That’s some legendary stories I’ll not be happily repeating for years to come, that’s for sure.
So what about Henrik? Well, if Jinky was Stein’s talisman, Henrik was O’Neill’s. Henrik’s a legend in his own right, but will we ever see a dreadlocked statue at Celtic Park? Maybe. It’s been nearly six years since he left now, and I still can’t watch The Magnificent Seven without smiling. Henrik has that same legendary kind of story about him as Stein does. Just like the big man, there’s more to Henrik’s story than just his time at Celtic, although that is one huge part of it. But just as if you left out the Scotland chapter of the Stein story, it wouldn’t be quite right if you didn’t mention Henrik turning the 2006 Champions League final in Barcelona’s favour before riding off into the sunset, heading for home.
Of course with him going into management that particular legend is still going. Who knows, depending on how that turns out he might not be finished with the Celtic part of it just yet. But no one knows what the future might bring. It’s hard to judge the Larsson legend when it’s still ongoing, but certainly the story of Larsson the player is a cracker. Worthy of a statue? Maybe when we’ve had a good few decades of imports can we vote on “Celtic’s Greatest Foreign Player”. After all, we’re a global club. That might just be worth a fourth statue in the distant future. But I can’t see him competing with Jinky for that top spot in the hearts of the fans. Not until Jinky passed from living memory of the majority of the support anyway.
What worries me though is that there might not be any competition for Henrik when that does finally happen. I’m worried we might not see world class players like Henrik and Jinky and Dalglish and all the others we’ve had playing for us over the years. Can it be that we’re done? We’ve had all our legends that we’re going to have and now we need to make do with what’s left?
Take the current squad. There’s one player that sticks out as a class above the rest and it’s Robbie Keane. But he’s not ours. We’ve only got a loan of him for a short while. I’m enjoying every minute of him being here, but it’s tinged with the sadness that I know he won’t stay and the sad reality that he’s probably not going to get the title we all know he came for. So his head will overrule his heart and he’ll be off making the money he knows he can make, striving for winners medals beyond some domestic gong he might win in Scotland. Annoyingly there’s a chance we could meet him next season in the Champions League qualifiers if he returns to Spurs and they finish fourth. Would you want to face him? I know I wouldn’t.
What of the rest of the current squad? See any legends there? Legends in the making? I see some decent players, certainly better quality in there than I’ve seen in a few seasons now. But there’s no one that excites me the way a Larsson or a Jinky would. For a while I thought Aiden McGeady might make it up there with the greats, but that’s looking less and less likely with every passing season.
Who knows though, football is funny that way. We may yet be surprised. It wasn’t so long ago I was laughing and joking about the fact that the Robbie Keane rumour would come up every transfer window. He’d never sign for us, that’s just fantasy.
Maybe we should look to the statues for inspiration. Look to Walfrid, Johnstone and Stein. Those men earned their statues, and no Celtic fan would argue that they don’t belong there. But to me, they’re three men who not only did a brilliant job, but they inspired others. Maybe they can still inspire us. After all, it seems against the odds that we’ll get any more legends in our team now. It seemed against the odds that a football team could help the suffering immigrants of the East End of Glasgow. It often seemed against the odds that one man could hang onto the ball for so long. It was certainly against the odds that a Scottish team could stop the Latin stranglehold on the European Cup.
Then again, no matter what we’ve always got one legend. The legend of Celtic Football Club. A legend that has never failed to pop up a surprise, and I doubt it’s about to start now.