In the summer of 1978 Jock Stein departed from Parkhead after spending over 13 years as Celtic manager and the manner of his departure still leaves a bad taste even after all these years.
Those of us who remember the dismal 1977-78 season are still psychologically scarred from the experience. No trophies, fifth in the league and not even a place in Europe for the next season was almost unthinkable and difficult to endure. The club’s greatest asset, Kenny Dalglish, was auctioned to Liverpool for £440,000 whilst a number of bargain basement signings flopped on the field of play.
By March 1978 Stein was said to have had enough and intimated to the Celtic board his wish to relinquish his managerial duties at the season’s end. Those in the know at Celtic Park still comment that the great man was never the same after a near fatal car crash in 1975 which would have finished lesser mortals and perhaps the trauma of that event was beginning to take its toll. Stein recommended Davie McParland as his successor, perhaps out of loyalty to his assistant, but the board pursued the young and ambitious Billy McNeill, at that time a very highly rated manager at Aberdeen.
In May, Celtic announced McNeill as Stein’s successor, taking advantage of the media hysteria of Scotland’s participation in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina to have a fairly low key press conference. With McNeill and John Clark now in place as the new managerial team, the problem for the Celtic board was how to employ such a formidable figure as Jock Stein ?
There were two choices open to the Celtic directors. Firstly, to place Stein in a general manager’s role, overseeing football operations. There were several problems with this. McNeill would obviously want to be his own man and have no interference from anyone, not even his old manager which was entirely understandable as Stein himself would never have tolerated anyone above him in a similar position. Matt Busby held this role at Old Trafford and a succession of Manchester United managers had complained bitterly of Busby’s shadow constantly hanging over them.
The other option open to the board was to make Stein a director in some capacity. Much was made at the time that he would have been Celtic’s first non-Catholic director but it should be noted that Celtic, at that time, were run more on family grounds than any religious link. The Pope himself could not have become a Celtic director unless he had a connection to the Kelly and White dynasties and Celtic had been run in the interest of those two families for generations.
In the end Celtic offered Stein a role as commercial manager, overseeing projects which would help to make the club money. Or as the media described it ‘A pools salesman’.
Even after 40 years it’s difficult to know if the board were genuine in their offer to Stein or if they were actually trying to manoeuvre him out the door. It’s interesting to note that Lady Kelly, widow of the ex Celtic chairman Sir Robert Kelly, told Jock’s wife, Jean, at that time, that although there was an offer to become a Celtic director it would never happen. She was subsequently proved to be correct.
Stein’s family later commented on the hurt that he had suffered, that after bringing so much success to Parkhead for so long that the board would now look to discard him. In fairness to the board a testimonial was arranged with 62,000 fans turning out to honour Jock in his benefit game against Liverpool. Testimonial income was tax free and Stein’s testimonial committee arranged a number of events which managed to raise the sum of £180,000, a massive amount of money in 1978. Stein’s accountant later stated that this windfall set him up for life. But this money hadn’t come from Celtic – it had come from the supporters.
Stein put on a brave face in public and said he was looking forward to his new position at the club. However, a matter of days after his testimonial, Leeds United offered him the post as manager and he accepted. Still a football man at heart, he could not turn it down. He lasted a mere 44 days at Elland road before returning to Scotland to take up the reigns of the national team.
In later years Billy McNeill commented that he wished he had made it easier for Stein to remain at Celtic in some football capacity. McNeill never saw eye to eye with Celtic’s autocratic and old fashioned chairman, Desmond White, and the feeling is that Jock would have been an ideal buffer between two forceful personalities. McNeill created a successful, attacking Celtic side in the early 1980’s but the thought remains that he could have achieved so much more had he enjoyed the support of a chairman who backed him and whom he could have bonded. That never happened with White and within five years McNeill would himself leave Celtic in highly controversial circumstances.
Jock Stein’s departure remains one of Celtic’s darkest days. No one was more respected and loved by the Celtic support and no one has brought the club the level of success that he had. Jock created the modern Celtic and that magnificent statue outside Celtic Park is testament to his achievements. Despite what happened in 1978 Jock Stein will be forever revered by the people he held in the highest esteem – the Celtic support.