Sir Alex Ferguson is the most successful club manager of modern times, an expert at the tactics and psychology needed to achieve at the highest level. In this exclusive interview, he reveals the extent of his debt to his mentor, the incomparable Jock Stein. An extract from The Official Celtic Opus.
It is a measure of the pervasiveness of Jock Stein’s influence that it should have begun to make an impact on Alex Ferguson years before the two men had even met. At Aberdeen and Manchester United, Ferguson has proved to be the natural successor to the peerless Celtic manager as the most prolific trophy winner in the history of British football. But that would not have happened without the invaluable guidance of the man he reveres above all others. Ferguson could be described as a modern-day apostle – still, more than 20 years after the death of ‘The Master’, a precious, articulate witness to Stein’s extraordinary powers.
The abruptness of Stein’s passing, near the end of Scotland’s crucial World Cup qualifier with Wales in Cardiff on September 10, 1985, left Ferguson (then his assistant with the national team) with a sense of loss he still experiences whenever the talk turns to Stein.
“Those were my best days in management, no doubt about that,” says Alex. “I would have stayed Jock’s assistant forever. I really would have, because I was getting the benefits of managing Aberdeen and working with my players on a daily basis and then having the four- or five-day break with Scotland and furthering my education.”
“The Celtic lads were always talking about this reserve team coach they had and how he was introducing them to training functions and onfield tactics they had never heard of”
Some months after Stein’s death, Ferguson came up with a line that would leave none who heard it in any doubt of his debt to his mentor, or of the incompleteness of his own education at the time of Stein’s fatal heart attack: “That big Jock,” said Alex, “what a fox. All I needed was another three days with him.”
Ferguson would have had no inkling of the incalculably rewarding relationship he would enjoy with Stein at the time he first became aware of the tall, uncompromising Celtic centre-half. Characteristically, he still remembers the day clearly:
“It was soon after Jock had joined Celtic from Llanelli,” he said. “My father, who was a great Celtic supporter, took me to an Old Firm game to see the new man and, naturally, we were in the Celtic End at Celtic Park. I would be just about 10 but, born and raised in Govan, I had already swung towards Rangers. When they scored I tried to leap in the air to celebrate and all I could feel was my dad’s hand clamped on my head, keeping me down! What I remember clearly about Jock that day was how he would knee the ball clear of the defence.
I learned later it was something he became famous for. He could send it a long way up the field with his knee.”
It was as a young professional with St Johnstone, however, that Ferguson first became aware of Stein’s trailblazing, revolutionary style as a coach. Having been forced to retire as a player by an ankle injury, Stein had been put in charge of the reserve and youth team players at Celtic Park.
“At that time, the late 1950s,” said Ferguson, “I would meet other young players such as Mike Jackson and Paddy Crerand at the dancing and there were also a few players who would hang around the Lido Café in West Nile Street in Glasgow. The Celtic lads were always talking about this reserve team coach they had, Jock Stein, and how he was introducing them to training functions and onfield tactics they had never heard of. At that time, believe it or not, players never saw the ball in training. They just ran around the track for a couple of hours.
It was all about fitness and stamina.
“Jock had changed all that for the younger Celtic players. Their work was done with a ball. He even introduced them to the tactic of building a wall to defend free kicks. That may seem routine nowadays, but back then nobody had done anything like that. Looking back, Jock should probably have been given the manager’s job then, but he went off to Dunfermline and was immediately successful and then went to Hibs for a year before going back to Celtic.
‘Maybe Bob Kelly, the chairman at Celtic Park then, thought Jimmy McGrory had been such a great servant to the club that he wasn’t going to replace him with a man in his 30s. Or maybe he was actually wise enough to believe that it would be a mistake for a young manager to have his first job at a club that size. There’s no doubt that is a general truth. We have seen it since, with the likes of Davie White and John Greig at Rangers: just too young for that big job.
“I know that even Billy McNeill feels he was too young and inexperienced when he took the Celtic job, and he had had experience with Clyde and Aberdeen before. And let me tell you, if I hadn’t had my Aberdeen experience [more than eight years at Pittodrie], I would never have survived those difficult early years at Manchester United. “But I’m absolutely certain Jock would have been the exception to that. It wasn’t just that he was ready at that young age, but he was already miles ahead of anybody else.”
Ferguson would see the enormous benefits of Stein’s influence at Dunfermline, the club he himself joined from St Johnstone just a week after Jock had left East End Park for Easter Road. “You have to realise how things were when Jock joined Dunfermline,” said Alex. “If you remember that old stand, you’ll know what a small, really rundown club it was. It was when I got there in 1964 that I really began to know about Jock and what he was capable of. He had actually been in the process of trying to sign me in a swap deal for an old pal of mine, Dan McLindon, when Hibs arrived out of the blue and offered him the job. Jock immediately recommended Willie Cunningham, his old left-back, as his successor and Willie completed my signing a week after Jock left.
“The Stein impact never left that place. Right through the 1960s, that club bore his imprint until the Callaghan brothers, Willie and Tommy, left. Jim Herriot was transferred, as was George Miller, Alex Edwards went… It was only then that Jock’s fingerprints faded. On reflection, the number of good players was extraordinary. Eric Martin, Willie Callaghan, Tommy Callaghan, Jimmy Thompson, Alex Edwards, Alex Smith, Jackie Sinclair, all capped for Scotland or the Scottish League. When I went to Dunfermline, with the new stand, great players, I loved it; the best years of my playing career. Willie Cunningham did a good job, but he knew himself it was Jock who had changed that whole club. Blazers and flannels for players, European football, things that had never been known at Dunfermline before that. You have to remember that Dunfermline not only made it into Europe regularly, but reached the old Fairs Cup quarter-finals. I remember when they beat Everton [in 1962/63]. That was an early indication of Jock’s mastery of tactics. Willie Cunningham was the left-back and what Jock did was play two markers on their centre-forward and Willie as sweeper. They lost 1-0 at Goodison and won 2-0 at East End Park. That kind of planning was unheard of at the time.”
When Alex married Cathy, their first house was in Simshill, on the south side of Glasgow. Their new home happened to be close to where the Steins lived.
“Jock and Jean lived in King’s Park,” he recalled, “and he and Sean and Myra Fallon would go to the Beechwood, a restaurant across from Hampden Park, most Saturday nights, as would Cathy and I. We’d have a table near them and Jock would just talk football all the time.
“Of course, you never ventured an opinion about football in his presence, you just listened. Even when I signed for Rangers, there was no cooling of the relationship. He would say ‘Good result today, then?’ But, of course, that first season for me at Ibrox was agony, because we went through the entire programme unbeaten until the very last match. I’ll be convinced till my last breath that we lost the league because Jock was too ‘wide’ for Davie White, our manager. Here’s what happened: there was a Glasgow Cup tie to be played and they couldn’t find a date, so Jock offered one, I think some time in March. Davie made the crucial mistake of not accepting it and I’ll never understand why. But his refusal was tantamount to an admission that Rangers didn’t fancy playing Celtic at that stage. It was all Jock needed, of course. From that moment on, he kept saying in the papers: ‘We can only throw the league away’. One night in the Beechwood, soon after wee Davie had turned down the date, Cathy and I were a few tables away for a change. Jock wandered over and said: ‘What’s the matter? Do you not want to play us?’
Now, for a start, I’m only a player and this issue is not even my department. But I only realised a long time after that he had done it to plant doubt in my mind and with the knowledge that it would get back to Ibrox. I’ve never forgotten that, or his other little set-ups the weekend of our final match.
“That final fixture for us was on the Saturday against Aberdeen. Celtic’s last outing was away to Dunfermline the following Tuesday because Dunfermline were involved in the Scottish Cup Final with Hearts on the Saturday. We were level on points, so if we had won and Celtic had lost or even drawn, we would have been champions.
“Before the cup final, Jock was in the papers again with a message: ‘I’d like to wish my old club, Dunfermline, the best of luck in the cup final. I hope they win it’. You see what he was doing there? Looking ahead to Celtic’s last league game, softening up the opposition, getting even their fans’ sympathy and on his team’s side, just in case Celtic needed a victory.
“As it turned out, we lost to Aberdeen and Celtic would have won the league on goal average anyway, even if they’d lost that last match. But Jock was taking out insurance, just in case. So there were all these little traces of influences he had on me, all the time coming up with things I wouldn’t forget.”
It was when Ferguson was offered the job of managing St Mirren, however, that he first approached Stein directly for advice. It was the start of a practical, working relationship that would become a partnership a decade later, when the two men were in charge of the Scotland team.
“I was flattered to be offered the St Mirren job,” said Ferguson, “but, to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether to take it or not. The thing is, I had only been in management a few months, at East Stirlingshire, and it was quite a step up.
“It was a Saturday, and I phoned Celtic Park. I thought it was a bit chancy, because it was a matchday. I asked to speak to Jock and he came straight on the phone. I told him my problem and asked if he could give me any advice.
“He said: ‘Go and sit in the stand at East Stirlingshire and look out, then go and sit in the stand at St Mirren and look out. That will give you your answer’. Then he just said: ‘Good luck today’. And hung up. So simple, isn’t it? I knew immediately what my choice was. That 30-second phone call was enough.
I took the St Mirren job that very day.
“For people who didn’t know him, it’s difficult to understand how powerful his intelligence and his charisma was. If he praised you, you felt on top of the world. If he was intimidating you, you felt yourself shrivelling up. When I was at Aberdeen and helping him with Scotland, he’d phone every Friday night and ask: ‘What’s happening?’
“It was enough to start me off, blurting out everything. ‘Oh, I’m signing Billy Stark tomorrow, I’m going to play so-and-so and leave out so-and-so’. Everything would come out, because you knew that he already knew everything. You felt that if you didn’t tell him, he would know you were trying to hide something. Talking to him on a Friday night was a confessional box. “But he was brilliant at making people feel good about themselves. He had a deep sense of fraternity about people in the game. I remember once we went to watch a match in Spain. Everywhere we went, people were pointing at him and whispering: ‘Jock Stein, Jock Stein’.
“Jock would have been a great help to me here
in Manchester in the early days. He’s the one
I’d have turned to, no question of that”
I realised then the extent of his reputation. You have to understand the enormity of what he had done as the first British manager to win the European Cup. And what made it even better was that he had done it with local lads, Scottish boys, and with such style. When he asked me to take over from Jim McLean as his assistant, I would have jumped through hoops for him.
“He phoned on a Friday night and said he’d like me to join him. I said I was deeply honoured but I’d have to consult my chairman, Dick Donald. Jock said he’d already sounded out the Aberdeen vice-chairman, Chris Anderson, and he seemed happy about it.I was delighted, but I asked Jock what would be my responsibilities. He said he wanted me to do all the training and physical preparation. I don’t know where I got the cheek, but I asked him what about picking the team and he said: ‘Let’s not get carried away’. I was killing myself laughing.”
It was during the long nights on exercises with Scotland that Ferguson was exposed to the unique talents of Stein, a famously light sleeper who would keep anyone in his company up all night if the talk was about football. “We’d gather on a Saturday night and, by three in the morning, I’d be saying: ‘Jock, I have to go to my bed’. He’d say: ‘Ach, you’ll get your sleep tomorrow, in the afternoon, when you can have a nap’. And then he’d say to Jimmy Steel, the masseur: ‘Steely, put on another pot of tea’ – and would carry on talking.
“It taught me how to handle people, because I was always quizzing him about the team, the tactics, and all the other things he did, all he had achieved. What was most striking about that topic was his wonderful modesty. There was never a hint of self-glorification. You’d be asking how he went about achieving something extraordinary and he’d say: ‘Och, wee Jinky was brilliant that day, or Bobby [Murdoch] was hitting those great passes all over the place, big Billy [McNeill] was a rock’. It was always the players, never any credit for himself.
“Yet, as we know from Billy himself, Jock’s insight into opponents and his manipulation of his own team was almost spooky. Billy once said that, in some of those European matches, Jock’s analysis was so accurate it was as if you’d played the game the day before. And what has to be remembered is that, in those days, there was no video available. Whoever he sent to look at opponents, Jock would have to absorb all that information and then transmit it to the players. That is one helluva difficult thing to do.”
It was from Stein, Ferguson revealed, that he learned his own famous habit of keeping criticism in house. It happened one night when they were discussing discipline and the example came up of the time Bertie Auld and Tommy Gemmell, allegedly having stepped out of line, were sent home from a summer trip to America. Stein had been forced to return home early and the party was left in the care of Sean Fallon and director Jimmy Farrell.
“I asked him if he would have taken that action and he said he wouldn’t have. By way of explanation, he added: ‘Why make enemies for yourself? By the time they got home, the families of the players would have had no time for Sean. Why give yourself that problem? You can still discipline the players, make things difficult for them. And I would have made it difficult for them, all right’. That’s why, to this day, I never criticise my players in public. As Jock said, why make enemies?”
In his own autobiography, Ferguson tells the story of the day he and Jock were approaching Tynecastle and he [Ferguson] absent-mindedly walked past striking miners holding out buckets for donations. Stein upbraided him and, suitably ashamed, Ferguson came back and put money in the bin. On another occasion he recalled: “We were coming back from Turnberry at a time when management were getting round the miners’ strike by bringing in coal from Belgium. One of the lorries had stopped at temporary lights and Jock made straight for the driver. Now, you can just imagine the thunderous face he put on as he approached. Nobody in the world could intimidate you with a single glower like Jock. ‘I hope you’re very pleased with yourself, bringing this coal down here’, he said to the man. The driver looked very sheepish, very guilty. I’m certain if he’d known Big Jock would be waiting for him, he’d never have left Belgium.”
Broaching the subject of the night Jock died brought a poignant recollection of events from Ferguson, as well as his deep admiration for his loyalty to Celtic, despite his treatment by the club over his enforced departure from Celtic Park in 1978. “I did feel my apprenticeship was incomplete when he died. His death was one of these things it’s hard to explain or understand. When it happened, it was a combination of things, the whole build-up. In the afternoon, we went to our rooms and I told him to get a wee sleep.
“Five minutes later, my door goes and there he is. ‘I’m just thinking about this game…’ He was a bit uptight. After a chat I say go and get a sleep. A minute later, he’s back: ‘I’ve locked myself out’. When we get back in, I saw his tablets and asked if he’d taken them. He said: ‘I’ve taken one, I’m fed up taking them’. His stuff was laid out and there was a pair of green Bukta pants, old-fashioned, obviously a superstitious thing.
“At the match, we couldn’t move for TV cables and photographers, I looked at him and said to the doctor, Stewart Hillis, that I thought Jock wasn’t looking well. He said he’d keep an eye on him. We got the penalty and equalised, the draw we needed to get through to the play-off for the World Cup.
“It was then he said a strange thing to me: ‘Whatever happens, keep your dignity, make the players go to the fans’. Just after that, he collapsed. When I got in they said he was okay. I thought, good, I’ll do the press conference. Then I came out of the dressing room and saw Graeme Souness crying and saying: ‘I think the gaffer’s gone’.
“Then Ernie Walker [SFA secretary] and David Will [SFA president] came out and I asked what had happened and Ernie said: ‘Give us a minute, Alex’. I said we’d have to get in touch with Jean, and Ernie said he hadn’t thought of that. I phoned and she wasn’t in. I phoned Jack Flynn, a neighbour and a friend of Jock’s. Jean was at the bingo with his wife so he rushed up there but missed them and when Jean got back, Rae, her daughter, was waiting for her. Rae broke the news.
“It was a fantastic period for me as a manager and it ended so abruptly. Jock would have been a great help to me here in Manchester in the early days. He’s the one I’d have turned to, no question of that. In later years, I used to hound him about Celtic, about what had actually happened and why he’d had to leave. You know, he never had a bad word to say about them. He loved Celtic, absolutely loved the club.”