The history of football has been written by unforgettable matches, dream teams and players of all kinds. Apart from glory, there is also a corner reserved for more bitter moments, those episodes that transcend the strictly sporty. An example is the catastrophe that mourned on February 6, 1958. On that day, the Manchester United squad returned from Belgrade to play the quarterfinals of the European Cup against Red Star. The result of the tie qualified the English club for the semifinal, where Milan expected. On the return journey, however, British European Airways Flight 609, in which the team was traveling, suffered an accident that claimed the lives of 23 people. Eight of them were footballers.
Years after the Munich air disaster, another tragic event marked the evolution of British football. You have to go until 1985, when the qualifying matches for the World Cup in Mexico were played. Specifically, the last group 7 game between Wales and Scotland, when a goal in the final stretch of Davie Cooper equaled Mark Hughes’ opening goal and allowed the Scots to play the play-off against Australia. That day, on the visiting bench at Cardiff’s Ninian Park was John “Jock” Stein, who was unknowingly rushing his last moments of life.
The 1967 European Cup
To know the greatness of the famous Scottish coach you have to go back to his time at Celtic, where in twelve seasons he achieved more than twenty national titles and thus reversed the negative trend of the club. His great milestone came in 1967, when he won the European Cup, the first for British football, against Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan. Three years later he would return to a final, but this time he failed to win the title at Feyenoord. All this he achieved as a Protestant, a minor detail if it were not for Celtic being one of the standards of Catholicism in the country. Something that was even more important then than it is now.
Thus, established at the club level, Stein took over from his compatriot Ally MacLeod in the Scottish team after the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. The first thing he achieved was the classification for the next edition of the tournament, held in 1982 in Spain, and from which he would say goodbye in the group stage. Four years later, Scotland would return to dispute the World-wide one, this time the one celebrated in Mexico in 1986; although, unfortunately, already without Stein as national coach.
On September 10, 1985, with the final whistle of that qualifying match against Wales, the tragedy made an appearance. This is how ABC reported the news: «The Scottish national coach, Jock Stein, died last night as a result of cardiac arrest, at the end of the match between Scotland and Wales. Stein was rushed to a hospital for treatment. Once there, nothing could be done to prevent his death. In full celebration, Stein collapsed in the band, passing away soon after. He was 62 years old. «I saw how he suffered the attack. The referee whistled for a foul and I think he thought he had signaled the end of the game, “Mike England, the Welsh coach, would later say.
The teacher of another myth
His death left Scottish football orphaned, but not the national team bench. With the play-off against Australia on the horizon and the challenge of playing the World Cup again and somehow honoring the memory of Stein, his second, a young assistant whom he had hired shortly before, took over the team. Under his orders, Australia was defeated and the World Cup in Mexico was played.
That young coach barely coached his compatriots for ten games, since on November 6, 1986 he was chosen as coach of Manchester United. The coach in question was Alex Ferguson, who over the years would become another Scottish football myth, worthy heir to the bench of his teacher “Jock” Stein.
Circumstances have meant that a phrase by Stein is again current. As a result of the absolute stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic, some have wondered if, if the competition resumes, it should be done without an audience to avoid possible infections, which, for many, would end part of the essence of the sport. Because for them, as Stein said at the time: “Soccer, without fans, is nothing.” .