FOOTBALL legend Jock Stein, at the age of 62, passed away 34 years ago today.
Alex Gordon, a former sports editor at a best-selling Scottish national newspaper, was in Cardiff that fateful evening.
In an exclusive feature for Scotzine, Alex shares how he remembered the sad occasion in his newspaper memoirs, ‘Jinx Dogs Burns Now Flu’, published by Ringwood in 2015.
THE NIGHT A LIGHT WENT OUT IN CARDIFF
I was in Cardiff the night Jock Stein died. If twelve or so yobs had got their way, I might have been standing right beside Big Jock in the queue at the Pearly Gates.
Let’s set the scene. I knew if I wanted to attend the crucial World Cup qualifying tie against Wales at Ninian Park on September 10, 1985 I would be forced to take holidays; there was no way I would get time off from the Daily Record simply to attend the game. I learned that lesson the hard way. Back in October 1977 I had made arrangements to travel to Anfield to watch Ally MacLeod’s side face the Welsh on Scotland’s triumphant march to Argentina ’78.
Alex Cameron managed to get me tickets, two little pieces of cardboard stardust, and handed them to me. As I paid over the cash, he asked casually, ‘Who are they for?’ I responded matter-of-factly, ‘Me.’ ‘Oh, you’re not going to the game, Alex,’ he said in an even tone. ‘I’m leaving you in charge of the desk while I’m in Liverpool, sorry about that.’ I was twenty-five at the time and I looked at Chiefy to make certain he wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t. I knew there was no scope for debate. I had just received two of the most sought-after briefs in football and, seconds later, any thoughts of cheering on my nation had been instantly extinguished.
I knew a mate of mine, a sub-editor on the Features desk, was desperately seeking tickets for Scotland’s biggest international game in years. I walked over to where he was sitting, asked if he was still looking to go to Anfield, he nodded vigorously and I put the precious little square permits to Liverpool’s stadium on his desk and said, ‘You’re in luck.’ Well, I’ve always believed what a friend gets is no loss.
So, almost eight years down the line, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake. Cunningly, months ahead of the game, I put my name down on the holiday rota. It was okayed; I could go ahead and plan a week in London, travel to the game in Cardiff and get back that same evening. At the time, I did all the Scottish football coverage for SHOOT! magazine, ghosting columns for John Greig, Tommy Gemmell and so on. I also wrote a monthly column for World Soccer and knocked out random features for Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly and GOAL weekly. I knew all the guys at SHOOT!, but my only connection with the hacks on the other magazines was via the telephone, so I thought it would be a reasonable idea to hoover up a few beers with these guys and we could all put faces to names. What could go wrong? Some halfwits in Cardiff came close to turning everything upside down. Including me.
I’M IN CHARGE…Jock Stein at training with the Scotland World Cup squad.
There was no way I was going to ask Alex Cameron for tickets for this match and run the risk of the plug being pulled. A friend of mine, Tony Roche, not to be confused with the former Australian tennis player of the same name, worked for one of the football magazines and was a good mate of Ian Rush. I told Tony I was travelling down to London and was planning on taking in the World Cup-tie at Cardiff. ‘I’ll get you tickets,’ he offered, generously and helpfully. ‘Leave it to me.’
Did you know Ian Rush had five brothers? I didn’t until I took my place in the row behind the Welsh goal in the first-half that fateful evening. The Liverpool legend had very kindly supplied the tickets to Tony who passed them onto me. Yes, you’ve guessed, I was smack in among the Welsh fans. The Scotland support was at the other end of the ground, seemingly miles away. My friend and I, with tartan scarves all too visible, were in among the enemy. I looked along our seating arrangement and I saw one Ian Rush lookalike. Sitting beside him was another. Then another. Then another. And then, finally, another. Believe me, they all looked as though they were wearing Ian Rush masks; the nose, the moustache, everything. I had to ask the guy sitting nearest me. ‘Are you, by any chance, related to Ian Rush?’ ‘Sure thing, he’s my brother,’ he answered. I didn’t have to ask the other four Ian Rush clones.
It’s history now how the game panned out. The Welsh, with Ian Rush leading the attack, deservedly took the lead early in the first-half through Mark Hughes and, unbeknownst to the supporters, there was drama in the Scotland dressing room during the interval when Aberdeen goalkeeper Jim Leighton had to admit he had lost a contact lens. That came as a surprise to his club manager at the time, Alex Ferguson, who was Jock’s assistant, because he had no knowledge of his goalie having defective eyesight. Alan Rough was told to get on and that left Jock with only one substitute, Davie Cooper.
I saw Scruff, one of the nicest blokes you’ll ever meet, racing towards the goal right in front of me at the start of the second-half and could only imagine Leighton had picked up an injury. Anyway, the game restarted and I have to say here and now that Ian Rush’s brothers were as passionate about their country as any of the lads with the Tartan Army up at the other end. They yelled, cheered, gesticulated and booed with the best of them. My friend and I must have seemed just a tad conspicuous with our neck gear, but no-one said anything. Big Jock put on Davie Cooper for Gordon Strachan with twenty-nine minutes remaining. (‘He started out making great decisions and he went out making a great decision – taking me off!’ said Strachan years later.)
With ten minutes to go, Scotland were awarded a penalty-kick. Apart from two isolated and vulnerable figures among the frenzied Welsh support, that end was suddenly enveloped in silence. Cooper had to score. If he missed, Scotland would not be presented with the opportunity to get to Mexico the following year. A goal would knock out Wales and would set up Scotland for a two-legged play-off with Australia to determine which nation would take its place among the elite in the 1986 World Cup Finals. There was an eerie hush as the Rangers man stepped forward and then, with a swoosh of his cultured left foot, he placed the ball merely inches beyond the fingers of the outstretched Neville Southall. I couldn’t help myself; I went ballistic. To be fair to the Rush brothers, they must have been bitterly disappointed, but they ignored the two cavorting Scots in their midst. Scotland held out for the remaining nine nerve-shredding minutes to book their encounters with the Aussies.
BEST OF BUDDIES…Jock Stein and long-time friend Alex Ferguson during their days together with the national squad.
As Ninian Park slowly emptied, I sat with my companion to allow the area to clear. Tony Roche was due to have a quick interview with Ian Rush before returning with us to London. He asked me to hold back and the three of us could get the train to Paddington. No problem. That situation altered fairly dramatically about fifteen or so minutes after the final whistle. At that time, by the way, I did not have a clue about Big Jock’s situation.
As I stood in the quiet of Ninian Park, I could see a gang of blokes making their way slowly round from the end that had been occupied by the Scottish support. They didn’t look too friendly. They were burning Lion Rampants and St.Andrew’s flags, tartan scarves and anything that looked remotely associated with Scotland. The bright thing would have been for me and my mate to get out of there pronto. I decided to stand my ground, I wasn’t running away from these cretins; the good old Glasgow upbringing coming to the fore. I noted that not one of these pyromaniacs was actually wearing Welsh colours. It dawned on me they might just be a motley collection of thugs out for trouble and, unfortunately for me and my friend, they were heading in our direction. Inexorably, the knuckle-draggers edged closer to us, still setting alight flags and scarves and anything the Scottish fans had left behind or had taken from them.
Inevitably, they came to a halt in front of me. They looked at my Gordon tartan scarf and one stepped forward. I’m 6ft 2in tall and, hard to believe today, but I was fairly fit those many moons ago. This bloke was about 5ft 8in, so he was on a loser if he attempted to look me in the eye in a staring contest. His mates congregated around, fairly menacingly, I have to say. I must have been on the Braveheart pills that day because I realised things could turn extremely nasty and the odds didn’t favour me or my pal. I’ll always remember this guy’s words. He sounded more Croydon than Cardiff. ‘What have we got here, Jock? Nice scarf. I’ll be having that.’ He motioned his hands towards my scarf when I whispered in his ear, ‘Touch that and I’ll boot your f*ckin’ balls round your neck. I’ll get a doing, but you’re going with me. Understand?’ Remarkably, he stepped back. For a moment or two there was a stand-off; my heart was hammering away under my shirt. Then he said, ‘I can’t be bothered with no exercise tonight, Jock.’ Then he and his cronies kept walking round the ground heading towards the exit at the far end. I kept my eye on them until they disappeared out of sight.
‘Christ, that was close,’ said my pal. ‘What did you say to that guy?’ I repeated my words of wisdom and my mate said, ‘F*ck’s sake, Alex, are you trying to get us killed?’
I checked my watch and reckoned Tony Roche would have had time to interview Ian Rush, so I started to make my way round to the same exit the Alex Gordon Fan Club (Cardiff Branch) had taken five minutes or so beforehand. I needed to go to the loo, so I told my pal to hang on as I went to the toilet, which was plunged into darkness. ‘You really are looking for trouble, aren’t you, Jock?’ I had walked straight into the flag-burning entourage again. I said nothing, but I have to say I did cut short my lavatorial duties before I got out of there sharpish; I wasn’t going to push my luck twice in the same night.
THE PASSING OF A LEGEND…Jock Stein at the end of the World Cup-tie.
We walked round to the front entrance of Ninian Park and it was obvious something was not right. A footballer I knew came up and said, ‘Big Jock’s collapsed’. We milled around with possibly another twenty or thirty inquisitive supporters. Tony appeared and informed us Big Jock was in a bad way. That’s all he knew. Just at that point, a small ambulance, siren blaring, swept up to the door. ‘It’s serious,’ said my friend, who knew a thing about medics.
I remember Andy Roxburgh, who would become Scotland manager after the Mexico Finals, walking past me, looking deathly pale. Across the road from the front entrance at the ground was a field with a small wooden fence. Roxburgh stopped there, leaned forward and looked as though he was throwing up. I asked a few media guys what was going on. Everything was sketchy, but there was little doubt that whatever was taking place only a few feet away inside Ninian Park was, indeed, critical.
We had to leave at that point to catch our train back to London. The mood was strange in the corridors as we made the journey. There was little celebrating; news had reached the fans that something had occurred with Big Jock. Days before mobile phones, my friend. We spent just over two hours completely ignorant of Big Jock’s death. We arrived in Paddington and I raced to grab the first available public telephone. I got through to the Record Sports Desk to be told the news; Jock Stein was dead, possibly of a heart attack. To put it mildly, I was stunned. I told my friend and Tony grabbed another phone and began making calls.
About forty to fifty Tartan Army members were walking through the station. As I came away from the bank of telephones, one asked, ‘You heard anything about Big Jock, pal?’ I relayed the sad news. That guy immediately told the other supporters and a few of them simply burst into tears. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life.
The following day, I received a phone call at our hotel from Phillip Rising, Editor of World Soccer. He could delay that month’s publication by twenty-four hours if I could get a spread to him by early afternoon. To be honest, it was the last thing I wanted to do. However, I borrowed a typewriter and some paper from reception at the White House Hotel on Euston Road and I knocked out the piece. It was all a bit of a blur, but I managed to get through it. I remember finishing the piece by using the line, ‘When will we see his like again?’
Phillip organised a taxi to have the copy picked up and taken over to his offices at Onslow House in Saffron Hill across London. We made the deadline and the article appeared a week later. I didn’t know it at the time, but World Soccer put the eulogy up for an award among European football magazines and I won in the specialised category. Later I received a scroll written completely in Italian. I haven’t got a clue what happened to the scroll or what it said; it really didn’t matter.
Cardiff, Wednesday, September 10 1985 is a location, day and date that will live with me forever. For all the wrong reasons, I’m afraid.
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