Jock Stein once said that his greatest achievement was not winning the European Cup, nor securing nine-in-a-row, but keeping Jimmy Johnstone in football five years longer than he might have been. He didn't, though, always hold Johnstone in such high regard. Indeed, as his long-serving assistant recalled in this extract from 'Sean Fallon: Celtic's Iron Man', one of Stein's first acts as manager was to seek to offload the club's greatest ever player.
ALTHOUGH history credits him with an instant impact, results initially worsened after Stein's appointment, with April 1965 bringing a humiliating 6-2 defeat at Falkirk. The Scottish Cup final beckoned but rumours were rife of an impending clearout, and the manager did nothing to dispel them. “Our staff of players have had their chance,” he said after the defeat at Brockville. “There can be no justified complaint if we seek to strengthen the team, and that is going to be done irrespective of what happens within the next week or two.”
Twelve days later, Stein sat down with the board to discuss plans for the following season. He arrived armed with two sheets of paper: one carrying the names of players he wished to buy; the other with those he wanted sold. Featuring on the latter list were John Hughes and Charlie Gallagher. So too, incredible as it might now seem, was Jimmy Johnstone. The board discussed the manager’s recommendations and, ultimately, gave the green light. It was only the absence of suitable bids that prevented Celtic from readily offloading two outstanding servants and ridding themselves of the club’s greatest ever player.
Stein, of course, came to love Johnstone like a wayward son. But he was a late convert. “For a long time I honestly didn’t think he liked me,” was the player’s seemingly accurate assessment. That impression dated back to the early ‘60s, when Stein had drawn unflattering comparisons between Johnstone and Dunfermline’s young winger, Alec Edwards. The doubts were hardly assuaged when, shortly after his 1965 appointment, the Celtic manager took on a part-time role managing Scotland.
Johnstone, who had forced his way into the international team the year before, did not feature in any of Stein’s seven matches in charge, with Rangers’ Willie Henderson consistently preferred. Though dispirited, Johnstone could live with that snub; convince himself that the SFA selection committee were to blame. But when he was dropped from the Celtic team for the club’s biggest matches of the season, there was only one possible explanation. “The worst moment for him, outside of leaving the club, was when Big Jock didn’t pick him for the Scottish Cup final of 1965,” said friend and team-mate John Clark in Jinky, The Biography of Jimmy Johnstone. “He was devastated... just inconsolable.”
According to Archie Macpherson, who has written books profiling both Jinky and Stein, the manager’s position was clear: “He thought that Jimmy was not cut out to be in the new Celtic.” Motherwell and Tottenham Hotspur both registered an interest and were not discouraged. The player, meanwhile, was to be found in tears, telling friends: “They’re going to let me go.” If ever Johnstone required an influential ally, it was now. Stein’s need for a strong dissenting voice was equally pressing. Fortunately, Fallon supplied both.
“It took Jock a while to realise how good some of our players were when he first came in. I had to try to talk him round on a few of them, Jinky included. He was one I would have hated to see leave. I had known him since he came on the ground-staff and I just loved watching him play. As soon as I saw Jinky, I knew he was the kind of winger I would have hated to play against. He’d take the ball right up to you, almost on your toe, and before you knew it he’d be away from you. And he was so brave. You couldn’t keep him quiet by hitting him early; he’d just keep coming back at you.
"He could infuriate you at times but what I loved about him was that, whether it was training, matches or a kick-about on the street, you knew he’d play exactly the same way.He was a joy to watch, and you could see how much pleasure he took from playing the game. And, like myself, he just loved playing for Celtic. The fans got it right when voted him the club’s best ever player. Jock wasn’t convinced at first - he thought Jinky was too much of an individual, not a team player - but he ended up loving him. It just took him a while.
"Everyone can make mistakes though, even the best managers in the game. And one thing I always liked about Jock was that, when he did get things wrong, he would be honest enough to admit it. If I’d told him beforehand, he’d be the first to say, ‘You were right, Sean. I should have done it your way’. But in this case, I think it was Jinky himself and the way he played, more than anything I said, that changed Jock’s mind. I could say what I wanted but the wee man needed to show Jock what he could do. Once he started doing that, there was no chance of us letting him go.”
The episode had, though, reignited an old debate between manager and assistant on the point at which a supreme individualist becomes a self-indulgent luxury. Stein had held firm on Charlie Tully. On Johnstone, he allowed himself to be persuaded. And just as well. Within a couple of years, the winger was the poster boy of Celtic’s European champions; a player so world-renowned that he came third in the voting for the 1968 Ballon d’Or.
Johnstone always remembered, though, how close he had come to being sold during that fraught summer of 1965. And he had an inkling of who would have been fighting his corner. “I always thought Sean had a wee soft spot for me,” he said in 2002. “Myself and the boss had our differences to put it mildly, and if I was ever looking for a wee bit of comfort, you could be sure that Sean would take me to the side and give me a bit of insight. He’d say: ‘Just you do what you can do out there and everything will be alright.’ He was a cracking guy around the place, he really was. I loved him.”
Despite 10 years as captain of Barcelona, a time in which that club raised the bar higher than it had ever been before, perhaps the defining moment of Carles Puyol's career came in a Spain jersey.
What follows is an extract from SPAIN: THE INSIDE STORY OF LA ROJA'S HISTORIC TREBLE by Graham Hunter. We pick up the tale with the clock running down on the semi-final of the 2010 World Cup. The score is Spain 0 Germany 0.
Before the pre-match team talks, and the studying of the tactical charts on the dressing-room wall, Pepe Reina questioned Carles Puyol about a move via which, just over a year previously, he scored for Barcelona in a 6-2 win at Real Madrid. Using the magnetic pieces on the white board, Puyol shows Reina the concept and the practice.
By half-time in Durban the Catalan, who thought injury was going to ensure he watched this match from the stands, has noticed that Germany appear to be marking zonally and his path into the penalty box at set plays is almost unencumbered. Spain have so far played a couple of corners short, put one in looking for Capdevila, but nothing for Puyol. The Barça captain has, however, missed an easy scoring chance with a diving header which Iniesta puts on a plate for him.
Before they are even off the pitch at half-time, the centre-half has Xavi, who delivered the corner at the Santiago Bernabéu from which Puyol scored, by the arm and is instructing him.
"Let’s use that move from the 6-2 win again. I’ll speak to Ramos, Capdevila and Villa, you just put the ball on the penalty spot for me and we will see how they cope.”
With 17 minutes left, Iniesta wins a corner on the Spanish left. I am at the mouth of the transport tunnel, right in line with the corner flag. As Xavi walks over to take the corner and settles the ball, I am aware of a little old lady, not in official uniform, who has materialised at my elbow without me noticing.
She is diminutive, so I have to lean down a bit to hear her.
“How is the game going?”
“Well, it’s pretty tense and pretty interesting,” I reply. “We just need...”
I look up as I speak and Xavi appears to have used those four or five seconds to erect some sort of rigging so that he can dangle the football precisely where Puyol wants it.
Puyol, this battered, brilliant Catalan warrior filmed a television promotion with me back in Potch. He sits and stares stone-faced down the lens of the camera, holding up a rugby ball.
“They tell me this is rugby country. Well, I don’t know anything about rugby.”
He throws the oval ball out of shot to his right as a football is thrown to him from his left and he catches it.
“But I do know about football.”
This is where he proves it.
Villa has been occupying Neuer on the line. For a split second, the keeper puts all his attention into shoving him violently with both hands and there is now no question of Neuer getting out to punch the corner.
There is a little triangle of players occupying German markers: Ramos to the left, tying up Klose, Piqué more or less static on the penalty spot and Capdevila to the right. The arc of the ball’s movement is taking it towards Piqué, but as Sami Khedira bunches up every muscle to make the jump of his life, a dark shadow falls over the land. Puyol soars over them all, Michael Jordan-style, and crashes the best, most powerful header I have ever seen past Neuer.
Back by the tunnel I am finishing my conversation with the little old lady:
“... we just need a goal.” But my fairy godmother has vanished by the time Spain celebrate wildly and Puyol, carrying four of his team-mates on his shoulders, clenches a fist and wears an expression which says: Let’s not make too much of a fuss of this ... back to work now.
Xavi Hernandez slips in unnoticed. He looks even smaller than he does on the pitch. His jet-black hair still damp from the shower, he is wearing a black Spain tracksuit and has a small boot bag tucked under his arm. No tatts. No piercings. No tidal wave of expensive aftershave crashing in his wake. No fuss. He looks like an old-fashioned footballer.
Backs straighten and gazes are fixed, but he bats away the attention with a round of firm handshakes. He scrapes a plastic chair up close to the table and sits down to talk football.
His voice is deep and authoritative. He leans forward, animated. Frequently, he makes a point, then, as the translator relays his answer, interjects - he wants to clarify or expand on what he has just said. He wants his message to be clear, unequivocal. Then, he is off into the night, leaving the glow of firmly held football beliefs in his wake.
The list of things we didn’t know about Andrea Pirlo before we started working on his autobiography include: how funny he is; how close he came to big transfers to Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea; and how much he loves playing football on the PlayStation.
Pirlo never makes it clear whether he’s a FIFA man, or down with ProEvo. Whatever he’s playing, though, he’s playing hard.
"After the wheel, the PlayStation is the best invention of all time."
"I don’t feel pressure. I spent the afternoon of Sunday, July 9, 2006, in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I won the World Cup."
"I can’t say with any certainty how many virtual matches I’ve played over the last few years but, roughly speaking, it must be at least four times the number of real ones."
"I sat down with Allesandro Nesta: friend, team-mate, brother, roomie. At half-time in one of our never-ending football games on the PlayStation, I confessed all: ‘Sandro, I’m leaving.’"
"Pirlo v Nesta was a classic duel back in our Milanello days. We’d get in early, have breakfast at 9am and then shut ourselves in our room and hit the PlayStation until 11. Training would follow, then we’d be back on the computer games until four in the afternoon. Truly a life of sacrifice."
"Our head-to-heads were pure adrenaline. I’d go Barcelona and so would Sandro. Barca v Barca. The first player I’d pick was the quickest one, Samuel Eto’o, but I’d still end up losing a lot of the time. I’d get pissed off and hurl away my controller before asking Sandro for a rematch. And then I’d lose again."
You can pre-order Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play here.
We publish it on April 15.
Happy St Valentine's Day, from Andrea Pirlo.
Here, direct from I Think Therefore I Play, his autobiography which we publish on April 15, the bearded genius shares some thoughts on matters of the heart. More or less. Like, the first one? That's taken totally out of context. In the book, it's a metaphor for the warm-up, which Pirlo detests. Bar Refaeli is Barcelona. Sex is the football match. Ah, never mind.
"If you’ve got Bar Refaeli lying naked in front of you, you can’t just wink at her and say: “Wait there, I’ll be with you in 15 minutes.” All you’ll do in that quarter of an hour is think of her. You’ll hold everything back until you’ve got her in your arms and can throw yourself into the moment."
"Del Piero’s last year at Juventus sticks in my mind as a kind of sporting agony; the drawn out death of an intense love that’s destined to disappear, second by second, piece by piece, until it’s nothing but one-way affection. And if there’s only fondness on one side, the whole thing becomes a bit pointless."
"As soon as Matri had gone off to
sleep, I went and got a poster of Andrea Barzagli, one of those they give away
with the Hurrà Juventus magazine, and pinned it up above his bed. I took
a photo on my BlackBerry and sent it to a load of mates along with a three-word
message: Now that’s love."
"Getting bored of Milan was a risk I didn’t want to run. That’s why at that last meeting I was sorry, but just the right amount. We said our goodbyes without regret. In the space of half an hour (probably not even that), I was out of there. When you’re in love, it’s time you need. When the feeling’s gone, having an excuse can help."
"If we’re talking longing looks, nothing compares to the ones I got from André Schembri one ordinary night in Modena. I’m convinced the Malta midfielder had fallen for me: I could almost see the love hearts dancing about his face. He had his eyes glued on me from the very first minute of the match. Those eyes became fully his again only when we were back in our respective dressing rooms.
"Had he been in possession of a ring, I’m sure he’d have got down on one knee and proposed. 'I, André, take you, Andrea, as my lawful wedded target. To kick you, follow you and chop you all the days of my life, until ref do us part.'"
* You can pre-order Andrea Pirlo: I Think Therefore I Play here