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Because of the extraordinary longevity of his career in the broadcast media, Archie MacPherson has achieved a status akin to a grade A listed building these days, mainly thanks to his chronic verbal diarrhoea, an affliction he hasn't been shy at sharing with countless numbers of viewers who have been on the receiving end of his television commentaries.
He has penned a couple of books in the past, including one about the Celtic v Rangers derby (imaginatively entitled Blue and Green it was published in 1989) but I hadn't read either of them. You can imagine my trepidation, therefore, as I approached this lengthy tome, half expecting it to exclaim 'wufffff!' as the cover was opened, like one of those singing birthday cards.
Thankfully it was far easier to read his book than it is to listen to one of Archie's match monologues.
Is it, as the title claims, the 'definitive' Stein biography? There's a lot of competition in that field, with excellent books having been written about Celtic's legendary manager by the likes of Bob Crampsey and Graham McColl. There are perceptive insights in most of them, and so the question will have to remain moot, but in my opinion MacPherson's stands comparison with anything about Stein I've read so far.
The essential details of Stein's background, from Lanarkshire miner to manager of the European Champions and beyond are pretty well known by now, but MacPherson manages to recount Jock's early life and career without too much cliche or mawkish sentimentality. Indeed, with the contributions of some supporters and ex-team mates from Albion Rovers and from his time in Wales, I found this part of the book informative and interesting.
Of most interest, naturally, was MacPherson's narrative on Jock's time at Celtic. A refreshing trend I've noticed in recent serious Celtic literature is a refusal to accept previously uncontested 'facts' about the club's history, mostly recycled from official accounts, and this book is no different.
Take Bob Kelly, for example, who claimed that, 'I brought him back from the wilderness of non-league football in Wales... In fact the club was nearly boycotted because I signed Stein. I was proved right.' In reality, as MacPherson points out, his arrival at Celtic Park as a player was due, not to a visionary masterstroke by one of our directors, but a burglary to Stein's house, a homesick wife, Jimmy Gribben and fortunate circumstances. The club was on the verge of a boycott because of the mismanagement of the likes of Kelly, who would pick the team more often than the then manager.
When Stein returned to Parkhead as manager and the ground rules about who was in charge of team matters were established, Kelly appears to have been a benevolent ally of big Jock, but when the chairman died there were subsequent directors who were less than well disposed to the big man, most notably Desmond White. Apparently the seeds of mistrust were sown when it became clear that Jock was thinking about taking the Old Trafford job. It is a chapter that does not reflect well on the directors of the time. Indeed, when Stein left Celtic for good he told his friend Tony McGuinness, 'If the supporters knew how I'd been treated they'd burn the place down.'
For most of Jock's Celtic years MacPherson was working in the broadcast and print media and his narrative is enhanced as a result of him being present at most of the seminal moments in Jock's story. He is therefore able to spice up the history with plenty of personal anecdotes and salacious journalistic gossip. MacPherson has as good a vantage point as anyone to comment on one of the threads running through Stein's career, which is Jock's relationship with the media. It got off to a bad start and basically went downhill from there.
The roots of this the author traces back to the league Cup final of 1965 against Rangers. Stein was riled by comments from some reporters that Celtic's second penalty was 'plenty soft'. 'As a player with the club he had quickly become imbued by the same sense of commitment that any boy brought up from the cradle to be a Celtic supporter would display. Now, as a manager, he was adding to it his own personal conviction, which was that of the apostate suddenly seeing the world from the other side of the barricades. In that respect he developed a zealotry that sometimes exceeded the bounds of common sense. He was becoming a walking seismometer of perceived media bias, some of it real, a lot imagined.'
Working in the newspaper industry also allows him to make valid comparisons between Stein's canny manipulation of the hacks and the clumsy responses from Ibrox orchestrated by Willie Waddell, an ex-member of the Laptop Loyal himself. Apparently this constant upstaging of the longtime establishment club would enrage Waddell. In terms of point scoring it was, as Archie puts it, a no-contest.
Another of the author's assertions about Stein is quite a controversial one. Stein's attitude towards Rangers is present from the very earliest years of his life and growing up in Burnbank he was no stranger to some of the pre-Enlightenment sentiments towards ecuminism which prevailed there. It was so bad that Jock was ostracised by many old friends once he had signed for the Hoops. MacPherson claims in the book that beating Rangers became, for Stein, 'That inner drive which propelled him through his professional life as a manager. The core of it was his attitude to Rangers. It is my view that it supplied a basic drive to everything he did in football. It was that element of his roots that he converted into a crusade to weaken Rangers and humiliate them whenever he could. Harsh though it may be to those who wish to paint a more benign picture, from my own observations it struck me that you could barely avoid using the word 'hate' when it came to making a judgement about how Jock Stein regarded Rangers. I often heard him talking about that club with undisguised distaste.'
Incredibly, MacPherson relates a tacit approach to Stein from Ibrox at the instigation of director David Hope, before the arrival of Willie Waddell at Ibrox, on the basis that, essentially, Stein was still 'one of us'. Rangers denied it, and there was never any proof of an offer, but Jock told MacPherson that a 'suggestion' had been quietly put in front of him. How the history of Scottish football might have been so different.
One of the author's arguments that I couldn't buy into was that Stein was indirectly responsible for breaking down the sectarian barriers at Ibrox. MacPherson traces the chain back to when Jock Wallace was celebrating a 4:4 draw at home to a ten man Celtic team, a result which stood favourable comparison to the aforementioned humiliations which had gone on for the best part of a decade. David Holmes was far from impressed and forced the issue with Lawrence Marlborough who, fearing another ten years in the wilderness ordered change. This led to Souness and the signing of Catholics. This fear of another era of Celtic dominance takes no account of the waning state of our club at the time, nor the more pragmatic cynicism of a Rangers board with one eye on FIFA and UEFA finally calling them to account, nor potential sponsors unwilling to get involved with such a blatantly sectarian organisation as Rangers FC.
The players who are interviewed - and there are plenty of them - talk candidly about Stein and, as you might expect, some of the best moments come courtesy of Jimmy Johnstone, whose turbulent relationship with his manager is well chronicled in the book. It is liberally sprinkled with humour, but one of the highlights concerns a disgruntled Jinky who was subbed by Stein and threw his jersey into the dugout in a petulant display of pique. It duly smacked the boss in the face, at which point the player scarpers up the tunnel with big Jock in hot pursuit. Jinky succeeded in barring the dressing room door only to hear Stein trying to batter it down with fists and feet. Realising he was 'in deep shit' Johnstone shouted out, 'I'll let you in if you promise not to hit me', at which point the sound of hammering was replaced with howls of laughter.
Overall this is a book which is written with great admiration for its subject, but it is not hagiography; every aspect of Stein's character is explored and at times, such as when dealing with the great man's often cack-handed transfers of players away from Celtic, it's a painful read. The big man does not always emerge in a favourable light. Some of his players are obviously still smarting after all these years.
If you're getting ready to send your letter to Santa up the lumb then you could do worse than to get this book in your stocking. Recommended.