On the 6th November this year, Celtic Football Club will celebrate the 128th anniversary of its formal constitution in St Mary’s Hall, East Rose Street, in the Calton district of Glasgow.
By any method of assessment, the club has had a most successful time during the years that date. From the last decade of the 19th century to the 2nd decade of the 21st century – with the exception of the 1940s, which were mostly war years, when the major competitions were cancelled – Celtic Football Club has won both the Scottish League and the Scottish Cup at least once in each of these 10-year periods. And after a difficult start in the League Cup (which began in season 1946/47), Celtic has also won that trophy in every decade since then.
The list of successes can also show a European Cup win in 1967, another final in 1970 and semi-final slots in 1972 and 1974; semi-final outings in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1964 and 1966; plus a UEFA Cup final in 2003. Add to that the Glasgow Exhibition Trophy in1902, the Empire Exhibition Trophy in 1938, the St Mungo Cup in 1951, the Coronation Cup in 1953 plus numerous Glasgow and Charity Cups over the years and the tally of successes reaches very respectable figures, with many moments for the fans to remember.
Yet, a very strong case could be made for stating that an event which occurred half-a-century ago today might have been the most important moment in Celtic’s history. On this day, 50 years ago, Jock Stein signed on as Celtic manager.
Jock Stein’s career as a professional player had started in fairly lowly fashion, with an 8-year stint at Albion Rovers (1942-50). Then he apparently saw, or was advised, about an advert which Welsh non-league club Llanelly had put in the newspapers requesting players to join them, declaring ‘transfer fees no detriment…..only top players need apply’. Stein got in touch, obviously liked what he saw and heard and signed for Llannelly on 10th May 1950, his wages rising from the £4 a week he had been on at Albion Rovers to £12 in Wales.
Stein played pretty well in season 1950/51 but rumours soon surfaced about the financial position of the club and when Llanelly’s application to join the Football League was rejected, he was well aware that, as one of only two full-time members of the side, he was facing an uncertain future. In fact, he had already told his manager, Jack Goldsborough, that he was going to leave the club and go back to Scotland. In fact, he had even considered giving up the game and returning to the pits. Then fate played a hand.
Jimmy Gribben had worked with Celtic’s background team in several roles since 1940 and when he was asked by chairman Bob Kelly to come up with the name of a player who could be both useful in the first team and bring on the reserves, he mentioned the name of Jock Stein. To begin with, though, neither Gribben nor Kelly had any idea where Jock Stein was at that time. However, they soon found out, made the appropriate
approach and sounded out their man. Needless to say, in the position Stein found himself at that time, he was delighted to be offered the role and wasted no time in accepting, signing for Celtic on 4th December 1951. Then fate stepped in again.
Just as Jock Stein arrived at Parkhead, all three of Celtic’s possibles for the centre-half position – Jimmy Mallan, Alec Boden and Johnny McGrory – were all injured, so Stein made his first-team debut only days after coming in (8th December 1951) becoming an automatic choice for the following four years, during which Celtic won the Coronation Cup in 1953 and the League/Scottish Cup ‘double’ in 1953/54.
Unfortunately, in a League Cup match against Rangers at Celtic Park on 31st August 1955, Jock Stein received a severe ankle injury which never quite healed and his appearances over the next two years were sporadic. He was offered the post of reserve-team coach, an opportunity he threw himself into with relish, discovering that he thoroughly enjoyed bringing on the youngsters and earning himself a fine reputation. Certainly, all the guys that I have met who played under him at that time are fulsome in their praise for his ability and encouragement.
With Celtic’s form and success not exactly setting the heather on fire in the late 1950s, rumours were frequently arising about the stability of Jimmy McGrory’s position and possible replacements for Celtic’s manager of nearly 15 years. However, although Stein’s name was among those considered, at least among the support, the man in question was a realist and he felt that there was a major obstacle to his becoming the next Celtic manager. Right from the start, those in charge of Celtic had been adamant that a player, coach or manager would be employed on ability irrespective of background or religious persuasion. In spite of all this, however, Jock Stein still felt that he was a Protestant in a club with a Catholic ambience. A nonsense, of course, but that was the way of the Scottish football world in the late 1950s. So, when an offer came in from Dunfermline Athletic to take over as manager, Jock Stein decided to take it, arriving at East End Park in time for the start of the 1960-61 season.
His tenure there brought immediate success, a Scottish Cup win in 1961 – ironically against Celtic – and a fine run the following season in the Cup-Winners’ Cup, the Pars reaching the quarter-final. Then came another move, this time to Easter Road in April 1964; almost immediately, he guided Hibs to victory in the first ‘Summer Cup’ since it was last held in the war-time years of 1941-45.
Back in Glasgow, though, things were not going well for Celtic. The Hoops had not won a trophy since the 7-1 League Cup victory over Rangers in 1957 and the fans were becoming restless. Change was required and eventually Bob Kelly bit the bullet and made the all-important call, asking Jock Stein if he would come back to Parkhead for a discussion about the taking over as manager of Celtic. The talks went well and on this day in 1965, exactly 50 years ago, Jock Stein moved into the managerial chair at Celtic Park. Was this the most important moment in the club’s history?