44 Days Later

The symmetry begins and ends with the 44 days they spent in the manager’s office.

Brian Clough and Jock Stein at Leeds United; a major novel and a minor chapter.

Plenty has been said and written about Clough’s tenure at Elland Road, of course and there should be no surprise or complaint about that. He was a brilliant, energetic, divisive character and his time at Leeds was tumultuous; a perfect blend for a perfectly compelling narrative.

Stein’s time there in 1978 was altogether different. He was less confrontational and, it must be said, less ambitious for the club. He arrived in Yorkshire with a sigh of resignation, in effect driven out of Celtic, and left with a sigh of relief.

Not even Archie Macpherson, author of the excellent Jock Stein: The Definitive Biography could make much of such scant raw material, brushing through his subject’s Elland Road episode in just four (out of 335) pages: “On Monday, 21 August he decided to accept the offer… and on 4 October 1978, just 44 days after joining Leeds, Stein was appointed to the Scotland post.”

Manny Cussins, Leeds’s then chairman, was shocked to see him leave —“Nothing in my life has worried me more than Jock Stein leaving Elland Road, not even the Brian Clough affair,” he said — but the players knew better. “You got more of a sense as the days went on that Jock’s heart wasn’t really in it. He was trying hard and I felt the team was improving, but there was quietness about him that made me wonder,” recalled Eddie Gray. “It’s just a pity he never stayed a bit longer. Given time I think he’d have turned things around.”

Jock Stein

Jock Stein in the Leeds dugout

Loyalty has never counted for very much in football but it might never have counted for less than in the spring 1978 when Celtic’s board of directors summoned Jock Stein to a “crisis” meeting to discuss the club’s lack of success on the field. “The chairman mentioned that personnel and staff at Celtic Park was largely the same as it had been 12 years earlier. It was appreciated that long and loyal service had been given by some persons but the welfare of the club should take priority over personal factors,” the club’s official minutes recorded. “Mr Stein suggested that David McParland (his assistant) should take control of the first team and that he, Stein, should go with the second team with a view to improving the standard of the young players coming through.”

This bizarre suggestion — like Sir Alex Ferguson taking charge of United’s under-19s, leaving Rooney and co in the care of Mike Phelan — was dismissed out of hand, presumably because the Celtic board realised that Stein, in making such an offer, was surely mocking them for their lack of faith in his abilities despite everything he had done for the club.

Whatever the truth, the relationship between directors and manager was nearing a point of no return. A month after that crisis meeting, according to Macpherson, Stein suggested Aberdeen’s manager Billy McNeill, who had captained Celtic’s 1967 European Cup-winning team, as his successor. Stein even did the ‘tapping up’, sounding out McNeill at an awards dinner in Glasgow. The hand-over was announced within weeks. It was framed, publicly at least, as an orderly succession, with Stein moving ‘upstairs’ into what was described as an “executive directorship” — a reward, apparently, for all the service he had given to the club.

Behind the scenes, however, there was consternation on all sides. McNeill was worried about how much influence his mentor might have over team affairs. The board, some members of which had never had a good relationship with Stein, were not enamoured at the idea of the ‘hired help’ taking a seat at the high table.

And Stein himself wasn’t exactly sure of what was involved in the proposed “executive directorship”.

When the exact nature of his new role became clear — he was to be in charge of the Celtic pools, a club-run lottery scheme — he was horrified. “You’ll never believe what they want me to do,” he told his family, according to Macpherson.

A few months later Stein accepted the Leeds job. “I did not want to stay at Celtic as a director. I felt I had too much to offer football and I wanted a closer involvement,” he explained.

Why Leeds? Well, apart from a rumoured offer from Kuwait, they were the only club that came in for him. Even then, Stein wasn’t the first choice to replace Jimmy Armfield at Elland Road. He wasn’t even second choice. Cussins initially offered the job to Lawrie McMenemy and his suggestion of John Giles was over-ruled by the Leeds board.

Famously, Clough used his first meeting with the Leeds players to decry their “cheating”, advising them to throw their medals in “the fucking dustbin” because they had never won any of them fairly. Stein’s introductory speech was conciliatory, complimentary even, according to Peter Lorimer, who was there on both occasions. “When Brian arrived he gathered the players together on the training pitch and basically told us we were rascals,” he said. “Jock got us together and said we were the best club in England and we would be again; that we had been successful using our own methods and we should do the same again. I came out thinking that was all I wanted to hear.”

Gray, a Leeds hero but a Celtic fan since boyhood, was less convinced — not by Stein’s speech but by his appetite for the job. “Obviously Jock was a huge name in British football, but at the back of my mind, I always thought to myself that it wouldn’t last,” he said. “I don’t know why but I just had a feeling that the Leeds job was a kind of stopgap for Jock to force the SFA’s [Scottish Football Association’s] hand and that he would return to take over as the manager of Scotland sooner rather than later.”

Stein’s first game in charge was against Manchester United, a traditionally torrid contest but this time with a little extra edge because it marked the return Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan, both of whom had left Leeds for Old Trafford the previous season. Manchester United won 3-2, with McQueen among the scorers.

Leeds won their next two matches, against Wolves and Chelsea. Things were looking up. Stein, unlike Clough, appeared to have respect for his players and it was reciprocated. “Jimmy Johnstone and Tommy Gemmell used to tell me they were terrified of the Big Man but that he was fair, and they were right,” said Lorimer. “Clough insisted on players doing what they were told. With Stein there were always two sides to a story so you could actually have a conversation with him. Cloughie decided from the start that we were all crap. Stein reminded a few of the older guys of Revie. He did things quietly, without shouting and stamping his feet.

You respected him for that, just like we respected Revie.”Away from the ground, however, Stein found life harder. In a footballing sense, he was an outward-looking man, devouring ideas from all around the world, but in his personal outlook he was much more bound by his roots. He had a small, tight circle of friends, all of whom lived in Scotland. In a 2005 interview Don Warters, who was the Yorkshire Post’s chief football writer at the time, painted a portrait of a lonely man.“One of the biggest problems for Jock was that his wife couldn’t settle here,” he said. “She didn’t like it down here and he was on his own from that point of view. I think that weighed heavily on his mind. I remember sitting beside him at a supporters’ club dinner shortly after he came down and nobody seemed to know him. They all knew who he was but he hadn’t made any friends.”

The optimism that greeted the Stein era at Elland Road didn’t disappear — his reputation as a manager and a man saw to that — but it was tempered by a couple of losses in the league, against Manchester City and Tottenham, and two indifferent draws against West Brom in the League Cup. There was very little transfer activity, evidence perhaps that the appeal of playing for Leeds, and for one of the greatest managers of the post-war era, was not what it once was.

In public Stein went about his business as before but behind the scenes there was a growing feeling that he had become disillusioned. Certainly, Eddie Gray sensed there was a problem. “He was putting in the effort  but I sensed his heart wasn’t really in it,” he said. “There was a quietness about him that made you wonder. Some of the lads never noticed a change in him but I did.”Hindsight makes geniuses of us all but it turned out that Gray’s instincts had not betrayed him. Stein’s heart wasn’t in Yorkshire and it wasn’t in his new job. The problem he faced was how to escape back home to Scotland with both his reputation and self-respect intact.

Jock Stein Leaves Elland Road

Jock Stein Leaves Elland Road and Leeds for the Scotland job.

Fortunately, there was one job in Scottish football that afforded a figure like Stein the dignity he deserved. Even more fortunately that job opened up within weeks of his move to Leeds. Given the current malaise of the national team it is hard to believe that managing Scotland was once a sought-after position but it was back then, not least because the pool of available talent included the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Jordan and McQueen. Famously, Ally MacLeod had convinced a nation his side could win that summer’s World Cup in Argentina and, equally famously, he and his players were humbled, beaten by Peru and held to a draw by Iran, before securing a brilliant, albeit meaningless, group-stage victory over Holland. MacLeod returned a pariah and it went downhill from there, with a 3-2 defeat against Austria in the first game after Argentina.

Besieged by the press, he resigned on September 26. The following day Macpherson, then a commentator with the BBC, was one of a handful of journalists who spoke with
Stein about the Scotland job — a deliciously illicit conversation he recounts in his biography. “This was a very unhappy man I was speaking to, morose, slowly spoken, husky,” he wrote of the small talk with which it began. “It was then he came up with what was on his mind. ‘Tell London that you can say something about the Scotland job and me… you could say something to the effect that you believe I would be interested in going back to Scotland… you can’t say you have been talking to me. Just play it like you are confident I would take the job. Make it sound like the SFA are being a bit slow on this.’”
Stein had been mentioned as a future Scotland manager for most of his career. He had filled the post temporarily during the qualifying stages of the 1966 World Cup, and he had turned down the job before it was offered to MacLeod. He was in a position to decline back then.
Now he was desperate. Macpherson and a couple of other journalists did what Stein asked of them. Hilariously, the Leeds manager then turned up on BBC radio where, in response to a question about all the reports linking him with Scotland, he replied, “That’s just Archie Macpherson flying a kite.” It was deceitful stuff from Stein but hardly out of the ordinary. More to the point, it worked. In effect the SFA, cornered by the public clamour for the former Celtic manager, was forced to choose from a shortlist of one.

All that remained was to extract Stein from his position at Leeds. Initially, Cussins refused the SFA permission to talk to his manager but in reality there was nothing he could do. Stein had a three-year deal with the club but he had never signed the contract.

As the speculation mounted, Leeds played what was to be their final match under Stein, a 3-0 victory over Birmingham. His record at Elland Road was won four, lost three and drawn three — not sensational and not awful, but certainly enough to convince Cussins he had a manager capable of leading the club back to the heights of the Don Revie years. The chairman made his final pitch at Stein’s hotel in Leeds — a £35,000 lump sum and a luxury house but, of course, he never stood a chance.
“This is the hardest decision I have ever had to make in my football life,” Stein told the local paper.
The truth was it was one of the easiest decisions he had ever had to make.

The following day he was gone, back to Scotland.

by Lawrence Donegan

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