How Big Jock built his Lions on Fallon’s foundations

Over the past 50 years, the story of the Lisbon Lions has been told and retold. Everyone knows the fairy tale: that 11 Scots, all born within a 30-mile radius of Celtic Park, became the first British and non-Latin team to win the European Cup. And everyone knows that Jock Stein was the man responsible.

In apportioning glory, Stein – one of the game’s greatest managers and the driving force behind Celtic’s finest team – fully merits the lion’s share. Yet in the rush to acclaim Big Jock as the architect of Lisbon and the club’s glory years of the 1960s and ‘70s, there has been a tendency to overlook the man who helped him work miracles. That man was his influential assistant, Sean Fallon.

As John Gorman, who played under the duo, said: “I think an image has developed, particularly since he passed away, that Jock did it all by himself at Celtic. Part of that has been the diminishing of Sean’s role, and that really annoys me. Because he was a lot more than just Jock’s helper.”

Gorman and his Celtic team-mates saw that that their manager, while undoubtedly a genius, was not without his flaws. Had Stein’s weaknesses not been his assistant’s strengths, the club’s glory days would not have been nearly as glorious. “Quite honestly,” said Billy McNeill, “Jock – for all his qualities – needed Sean. He was able to supply all the things the big man wasn’t particularly good at.”


Stein, to his immense credit, recognised this. He afforded Fallon the trust and freedom needed to maximise his attributes, and it resulted in one of the greatest managerial partnerships of all time.  “You’re talking about Celtic’s greatest manager and greatest assistant manager together,” said Davie Hay. “Both had their own qualities but they complemented each other brilliantly and I always admired Sean for the way he played his role. He was a vital cog in the machine during those great years for Celtic but the fact he didn’t get much recognition for that didn’t seem to bother him.”

The Irishman himself, speaking in his authorised biography, ‘Sean Fallon: Celtic’s Iron Man’, confirmed this to be the case. “I knew at the time that a lot of my work was going unnoticed, but I wasn’t in the job for recognition,” he said. “The way I saw it, my job was to help the club and to help Jock and the players, and I tried to do that as best I could. I never think: ‘Ah, I’m annoyed I didn’t get credit for this or for that.’ Not at all. I just look back on what the club achieved and feel lucky to have been a part of it.

“I had a few offers over the years to become manager at other clubs but Jock stopped me from going and said he needed me at Celtic. And I never wanted to leave the club anyway. That might not have been the case if someone else was in charge. I don’t think you could do the job of assistant if you didn’t believe completely in the person you were working with. But I was fortunate to work with one of the greats; someone who knew the game inside-out but also respected my opinion.”

And Fallon’s was an opinion well worth respecting. Stein had seen and appreciated that when the two played together, and later recognised that his old friend had an unparalleled eye for talent. “If I liked a player, Jock trusted me enough to let me get on with it,” said the Irishman. “People say I had an eye for talent and, without being too immodest, I do think that was a strength I had. My record was pretty good.”

It was a great deal better than that. When Celtic’s polled their fans in 2002 for the club’s best-ever team, over half the players selected – from across the club’s illustrious history – were Fallon signings.

Names such as Dalglish, McGrain, Macari, Connelly, Hay, Burns, Bonner and McStay, all brought to Celtic by the Irishman, establish him as one of the greatest talent-spotters British football has ever seen. And that is before we consider his contribution to the Lisbon Lions.

Luring legends
Stein undoubtedly provided the magic touch, and had no bigger admirer than his assistant. “Jock was a great manager,” enthused Fallon. “A master. People talk about the greatest managers of all time and I still believe that Jock is at least on a par with the best of them. There are so many things that go towards making a great manager and, to me, Jock had them all.”

But even the best managers stand or fall on the quality of players at their disposal, and this was where Stein was indebted to his assistant. For while Big Jock was a magnificent motivator and an insightful tactician, he did not possess Fallon’s uncanny knack for identifying and acquiring talent.

It is common knowledge that just one of the Lisbon Lions – striker Willie Wallace – was signed by Stein. Less well known is the role Fallon played in assembling the others, and in convincing Big Jock to hold on to the greatest of them all.


Indeed, while the Irishman’s most famous signing involved the snatching of Rangers fanatic Kenny Dalglish, equally significant was the success he enjoyed in keeping Tommy Gemmell and Bobby Murdoch from Motherwell. Gemmell had wanted nothing more than to pull on the claret-and-amber of his hometown club, describing them in his autobiography as “the one team I wanted to play for”. Motherwell, though, seemed oblivious to the potential Fallon quickly identified. The Irishman would be at Gemmell’s side at Celtic Park on October 25, 1961 when, along with another young hopeful by the name of Jimmy Johnstone, he signed his first contract.

In Murdoch’s case, Motherwell had taken the then remarkable step of offering the youngster, who was just 14, a full-time contract at the not inconsiderable wage of £8-a-week. But Fallon visited his house and charmed Bobby’s parents, convincing them that their son would be in capable and caring hands at Celtic Park.

“There isn’t a better feeling in football than signing a young lad and then seeing him go on to enjoy great success,” said Fallon. “And with Tommy and Bobby, they couldn’t have done any more. I always felt that Bobby wasn’t as famous around the world as he should have been in those great days. He was a magnificent natural footballer, and someone with the ability to control and dictate matches. A lovely lad too. He never gave Jock and myself a minute’s trouble.

“Tommy was cheekier and more sure of himself, but he was a tremendous player. He was quick, good in the air and his support play for our attacks was such a great weapon. He was a magnificent striker of the ball – one of the best around – and there aren’t many full-backs who can say they’ve scored in two European Cup finals.”

Kelly Kids to Lisbon Lions
Jim Craig, Gemmell’s fellow full-back – and the man who set up his equaliser in Lisbon – was another Fallon signing. He quickly recognised that he had been recruited by a talent-spotter supreme. “There’s no doubt that was one of Sean’s great talents,” Craig said. “He had an obvious eye for a player and a good set of contacts about the country who would give him a nod when they’d seen someone worth a second look. Sean seemed to make the right call more often than not. The signings he made brought Celtic a lot of success, and a lot of money.”

It should not be forgotten, though, that many of these talented youngsters and future Lisbon Lions struggled badly during their early years with the club. Murdoch, for example, was routinely jeered during the lean years of the early ‘60s as chairman Bob Kelly embarked on an ill-advised bid to copy Manchester United’s Busby Babes. The side’s nickname, the Kelly Kids, reflected the knowledge that the chairman was responsible not only for Celtic’s erratic team selections, but the costly decision to sell senior stars such as Bobby Collins and Pat Crerand.

In the absence of such figures, the club’s youngsters wilted. Fallon, who had been assisting McGrory and was growing in influence, told Kelly that an injection of experience and personality was urgently required. He eventually succeeded in convincing the chairman to reluctantly sanction two of the most significant signings in Celtic’s history.

Ronnie Fir Park

The first was a goalkeeper who had been in the senior game three years longer than Fallon himself, having debuted for Queen’s Park in 1945. He had enjoyed a sterling career, but it was a career drawing to a close. A fall-out with Stein, his then manager at Hibernian, had caused the veteran keeper to look at a life outside football, and he had even begun reporting on matches for a Sunday newspaper.

“I remember the reaction I got when I suggested signing Ronnie,” recalled Fallon. “Everyone said, ‘But he’s finished. What are you thinking?’ The chairman went along with it in the end – probably because Ronnie was cheap. Jock was looking for £4,000 but I told him we only wanted Ronnie for the reserves and bartered him down to £2,000. What I said about the reserves wasn’t strictly true, but Jock forgave me for it. He had already given Ronnie permission to talk to Berwick Rangers about becoming their manager at that time. But I knew that he still had a lot to offer as a player.”

That same keeper, who had been choosing between journalism and Berwick Rangers, went on to make almost 200 appearances for Celtic. In the club’s glory year of 1967, it was not Murdoch, McNeill or Johnstone, but rather the 36-year-old Simpson, who was voted Scotland’s Player of the Year.

By acquiring a priceless assett for such a modest fee, Fallon had proved himself a shrewd operator in the transfer market. He did, however, stretch Kelly’s faith to its very limit with his next request. Bertie Auld was, after all, a player the chairman had been glad to rid himself of four years earlier, and little had happened to change his mind in the years since. Familiar flashes of temper had followed Auld to Birmingham City, where his most famous contribution came in delivering knockout punches to two Fulham players within seconds of each other. But Fallon firmly believed that Auld – both as a player and a personality – was desperately needed, and worth fighting for.

“I had to plead with the chairman before he finally agreed,” he recalled. “But I kept at him because I knew Bertie would make all the difference. He was an older head; tough and cunning. And he could play – Bertie could take three players out of the game with a single pass. I knew he’d put his foot on the ball and slow things down for us because our football at that time was too fast and furious. Bertie knew how good he was – he fancied himself rotten – and we needed that kind of self-belief at the time.”

Willie Wallace would later describe Auld as the Lisbon Lions’ “best player”. “He simply made the team tick,” the striker explained. “He was our general.” The team’s maverick, though, and the darling of the fans, was of course the one and only Jimmy Johnstone. And though Stein would come to love the winger like a wayward son, he was a late convert. Shortly after taking charge, he presented the board with a list of players he wanted to offload. Jinky’s was among the names scribbled down.

“It took Jock a while to realise how good some of our players were when he first came in,” Fallon recalled. “I had to try to talk him round on a few of them, Jinky included. 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.”

Fortunately for Celtic, Stein didn’t make many. And of all his wise decisions, perhaps the shrewdest of all was picking Fallon to be his assistant.

Article first published in the Scottish Daily Mail on 24.05.17

When Fallon downed the Dons in the ’54 final

Tomorrow, Celtic face Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup final knowing that victory will secure the club’s first treble since 2001. When the two sides met in the same fixture in 1954, the Bhoys were chasing their first double in fully four decades. The goalscorer who secured it for them was Sean Fallon.

It was a fairy tale end to a turbulent season for Fallon, who had been ruled out for the remainder of the campaign after sustaining a broken collarbone in a match against Hearts. His refusal to leave the field after sustaining the injury – these being the days before substitutions – earned him his ‘Iron Man’ nickname. Sean’s response at the time? “Ach, it wasn’t as if it was a broken leg.”

Scottish Soccer - League Division One - Celtic v Rangers

Sent home to recuperate in Sligo, Fallon returned to Scotland in the spring to watch Celtic play Hamilton – and saw first-choice striker John McPhail pick up a season-ending injury of his own. “It left the club struggling for players,” Sean recalled. “Just as I was due to leave to go to the airport, Bob Kelly called me over and asked if I would be willing to stay and try to play. I knew the doctor wouldn’t have been happy about it. But there was no way I was going to refuse.”

So it was that Fallon, inactive for five months and seemingly out for the season, was back in the starting line-up four days later. But there was one key difference: his position. Having been injured at left-back, he was restored to the team at centre-forward. “I was very limited as a striker,” he told me. “I was good for a bit of shock value at first but, once defenders realised I didn’t have any real pace or skill to get past them, the goals would always start drying up.”

Not that season they didn’t. Celtic, eight points behind leaders Hearts in the era of two points for a win, pipped the Edinburgh side to the title with run of seven successive wins. That remarkable run was underpinned by an equally unlikely scoring streak by the Bhoys’ makeshift centre-forward. And, for Fallon at least, the best had yet to come.


A crowd of 130,060, including Sean’s beloved father, packed into Hampden to witness the concluding act. That colossal crowd saw the Iron Man from Sligo score a goal described by Bertie Auld as “the most important of that era”: the winner as Aberdeen were beaten 2-1. The mere mention of it never failed to raise a smile in the man responsible.

“It’s not every day you score the winning goal in a cup final. I never expected it to happen to me and it was something very, very special, especially with my dad there to see it. Celtic hadn’t won the double for 40 years, so it was a bit of history.

“But I must thank Willie Fernie for that goal because he did all the hard work for me. He’d set off on one of those great runs of his, beating man after man, and I just tried to keep up, get into space and hope that he’d see me. When he cut it back, I was eight yards out and couldn’t really miss. I say that, but there was a moment just after I hit it when I thought I might have got it wrong. But then Hampden just exploded and I kept on running, soaking it up.

“Willie was a good friend and we’d often laugh about it over the years. ‘My name should have been on that goal rather than yours,’ he’d tell me. ‘A blind man could have put it in from there.’ He wasn’t far wrong. But I was proud all the same. And I’m sure my dad was too. I think we both could have died happy that afternoon.”

Those were the days in which men tended not so share such emotions, and certainly not with each other. Sean, though, learned the full extent of his father’s pride in an unorthodox way, when Sligo’s town council staged a celebratory dinner in the wake of the cup final. John Fallon had been asked to deliver a toast and spoke of his son’s Hampden winner as one of the happiest moments of his life, adding “there is no prouder father than I”.

Sean attended the event with Jimmy McGrory and, for someone with a soft heart – in contrast to his Iron Man image – he did well to hold back the tears. Described by McGrory at the same dinner as “a credit to Sligo on and off the field”, Fallon used his speech to thank Celtic for exceeding his wildest dreams. “It is the greatest club in the world,” he enthused. “And more than a club, it is a home and an institution.”

‘Iron Man: The Sean Fallon Story’ is shown again on cup final night, Saturday 27 May, at 10pm on BT Sport 2. Sean’s authorised biography is on sale via BackPage Press.

How football’s greats lined up for legend Fallon

The biggest names in football are rarely easy to reach, and convincing them to be interviewed tends to be tougher still. Some journalists occasionally succeed with incentives, others through personal connections. I couldn’t rely on either in asking in-demand figures such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish to give me their time not once, but twice.

I did, though, have the name of Sean Fallon to call upon. And on each occasion and several more, that name – and the affection and gratitude these men had for Sean – ensured that spaces were found in even the most packed diaries.

Ferguson, for example, was still Manchester United manager and chasing an umpteenth league title when he first invited me to Carrington to speak about his old friend and mentor. More recently, after a documentary based on that book was commissioned, I contacted him about speaking once more. Again, he was among the first to agree.

“No matter how busy he was, Sean would always be there for you,” Sir Alex said, by way of explanation. “He was a truly, truly remarkable man.”

Sean and Fergie

Ferguson was far from alone in holding Fallon in such high regard, and in wishing to acknowledge the Irishman’s role in his career. Kenny Dalglish, another giant of the game, proved similarly eager to contribute to Sean’s book and the upcoming documentary.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to show appreciation and gratitude to people who’ve stood by you,” said Dalglish. “And I wanted to say thanks to Sean. It’s because of him, or with his help, I am where I am.”

Dalglish was, of course, one of the many outstanding players spotted and signed by Fallon. And despite winning three European Cups and ten top-flight titles as a player, he described Sean’s legendary visit to his Ibrox flat as “the biggest thing in my career”.

Danny McGrain went further still. I remember vividly a visit to the Fallon house, when Sean – glowing with pride – showed me one of his most treasured possessions. It was Danny’s first international cap, accompanied by the dedication: ‘Thanks for making it all happen.’

“Becoming a footballer wasn’t actually a great ambition of mine,” McGrain later explained. “I don’t think I really believed that people like me, boys from Drumchapel, could become like the stars I saw on a Saturday night. For me, footballers were from a different world.

“Sean, though, saw me, believed in me and took the bull by the horns by actually signing me. I was blown away. I remember thinking: ‘This is Sean Fallon, who won the European Cup, coming to my house in Drumchapel!’

“I loved Sean,” McGrain added. “In fact, I never understood how anyone couldn’t love the guy. He would have helped anybody and everybody. He was just a great man.”

That he was. And those traits, that greatness, is why Sean Fallon’s name has opened doors wherever his story has led me to knock.

‘Iron Man: The Sean Fallon story’ premieres on BT Sport 1 at 10pm on Thursday 25 May and will be shown at the same time on Saturday 27 May on BT Sport 2. His authorised biography is on sale here 

Big Jock remembered by his closest friend

“I liked him from the start.”

In tracing his friendship with Jock Stein, Sean Fallon had to look back almost six decades. And no matter how many questions he faced about his old pal – and heaven knows there were plenty – the Irishman never failed to wax lyrical.

“Jock was a master,” he would say. “There are so many things that go towards making a great manager and, to me, Jock had them all. His reading of a game was second to none and he could pick up on the smallest details quicker than anyone I ever saw. And what always impressed me was his knowledge of the game and the way he could communicate that knowledge to the players. Whenever he criticised someone, and he wasn’t shy in doing that, he would explain why. That’s so important, especially for younger players. Everything had a point with Jock.”

But while Fallon would passionately extol the professional virtues of his old vice-captain and managerial partner, his most vivid memories were of a close friend and trusted confidant.

“Neither of us was a drinker or big socialiser, so football was our big passion,” he said. “We became good friends very quickly. Our ritual during our playing days was always the same: lunch in Ferrari’s restaurant, talking football, and then off to the Paramount Cinema across the road to see what films were showing. We both loved our westerns.”


That friendship was later fortified as Stein and Fallon became the most potent of managerial duos. And when the pair weren’t taking in a match or holed up in their cramped office, they would be on the golf course together, at the seaside with their families, or out for dinner at a couple of favourite haunts.

“We were close for years, even after we both left Celtic,” said Sean. “It helped that our wives got on very well too. Every Saturday night, we’d all go for a meal to the Vesuvio or the Beechwood, and that was when Jock would loosen up. He could be quiet in company sometimes and he was always wary of what he was saying when he was around strangers or people he didn’t know well. But he really did relax when it was just him and myself with Myra and Jean. You saw the real Jock then, and he could be great company when he was like that. When the restaurant was closing, he wouldn’t want to go home. He’d have talked through the night if they’d have let him.”

Amid all these happy memories, though, was the Irishman’s altogether darker recollection of September 10th 1985. It was on that date, 30 years ago today, that football lost a true giant and Fallon an irreplaceable comrade. “When they said Jock had passed away, I nearly died myself,” Sean recalled. “He hadn’t always kept well, but you just felt he would always be around.

“It was very difficult getting used to him not being there. I felt I had no-one to talk to about football any more – not the way Jock and I used to talk about the game anyway. That’s what I missed the most and what I still miss to this day. I spent almost every day with Jock for a long, long time, and we went through a lot together. When he died, I lost a great friend. It took a long time to get used to the fact that he was gone. But I look back on all that time together with a lot of happy memories. More than anything, I feel very fortunate to have known him.”

Interview: Sir Alex Ferguson on Sean Fallon

It is a book that might never have happened without Sir Alex Ferguson. Sean Fallon had made it to 89 without telling his amazing life story and saw no reason to begin accepting offers he had continually turned down. That he performed such a late U-turn was due, his family said, to Ferguson’s continued insistence that he must; that it would be a waste not to.

The fruits of this pestering were recently revealed to Ferguson when he read ‘Sean Fallon: Celtic’s Iron Man’. Having done so, he proved as generous with his praise as he had been with his time in being interviewed for the book. After immediately phoning Fallon’s son, Sean Jnr, to rave about the story, Ferguson wrote two letters – first to the family, then to the author, Stephen Sullivan – to express his admiration for the book and, more importantly, for Fallon himself.

And for anyone wondering why Sean was so important to Ferguson, this interview helps explain.

Sir Alex Ferguson has long been seen as a Godfather-type figure within football, and his advice and assistance are still sought as eagerly and frequently as ever. “Retired? Who’s retired?” he said recently. “I’m busier than ever.”

But if Ferguson never turns a deaf ear to the under-pressure managers seeking his counsel, it is for good reason: he well remembers being on the other end of such calls. “They were very important for me,” he said. “When I was starting out – even when I went on to Aberdeen – I needed to be able to ask advice of people whose opinion I trusted. Jock and Sean were always willing to pick up the phone.”

The Jock and Sean referred to are, of course, Stein and Fallon: one of the most successful and well-matched management pairings ever seen. Confidants and close friends, the Celtic duo had a well-established routine of taking their wives for dinner at the Beechwood restaurant in Kings Park. Over time, it became clear that a fellow diner was paying them particularly close attention.

“I was earwigging on their conversations,” Ferguson recalled with a laugh. “Eventually they just gave up and invited me over! I was inquisitive, that’s for sure. I used to thrive on being at the next table to them at the Beechwood, and I was very lucky to have them there, ready and willing to answer my questions. That’s where I started gleaning a lot of things about football management, trying to eke little nuggets out of Sean and Jock.”

Sir Alex’s subsequent association with the latter is well documented, and Stein’s role as his mentor much-discussed. But Ferguson recalled that, initially at least, it was Fallon who provided the greatest assistance.

“Sean was a bit more forthcoming,” he said. “Jock’s personality meant he was a more secretive and sort of kept you down there a little bit, even as a young man. Sean was brilliant with me, and we were always close after that.

“He was always a crutch. There are people you depend on for advice and Sean was one of those. He would always lift the phone to you. I’m sure Myra (Fallon’s wife) will tell you the number of times I used to call him. Countless!”


Ferguson had known and been in awe of Fallon as a player. In a fine eulogy at the Irishman’s funeral, he chuckled at the memory of a legendary battle that Sean had fought – and won – with the Rangers hard man of the same era, Sammy Baird. “Sean was tough – my God, he was tough. But he played in the same honest way he lived his life.”

The former Manchester United manager also rated Fallon’s football intellect, and his powers of persuasion. It was no accident, he knew, that the Irishman had been charged not only with identifying players like McGrain, Macari and Dalglish, but with convincing them to sign. “Sean could charm the birds off the trees,” he said, laughing. “He’d have talked anyone into submission.”

Like many who admired Fallon’s wisdom, work ethic and ability to spot and sign outstanding players, Ferguson was convinced that he need not have remained an assistant. But there was huge respect for the fact that not only was he willing to reject offers elsewhere, but to acknowledge Stein’s pre-eminence and accept his place in the great man’s shadow.

“I know Sean was meant to have been promised the Celtic job, but he was never bitchy about Jock getting it. Never,” said Ferguson. “He always looked at what was best for Celtic. He had a tremendous attitude and was always positive, and that’s why I think he was one of life’s wonders; a truly great guy. He was a rock of a man.

“I imagine a lot of people didn’t appreciate all that he did for Celtic. But Sean wasn’t the kind of man to push himself forward and boast about what he’d done. He was always happy just to get on with his life. Being appreciated by the people who worked with him was enough.”

The esteem of his old friend from the Beechwood also meant a great deal. Indeed, it was only Ferguson’s continued urging that finally convinced Fallon – then one year short of his 90th birthday – to commit his life story to print.

“Alec? He’s up there with Jock as one of the best there’s ever been,” the Irishman would say. “A good lad too.” When Ferguson was discussed, it did tend to be his character traits – rather than his obvious managerial attributes – that were stressed. And this was reciprocated. While Sir Alex respected Fallon the footballer and admired Fallon the deputy and scout, it was the man who earned his enduring affection.

“I appreciated being his friend,” he said. “I’ll never forget that at my mother’s funeral, the first football person I saw at the chapel was Sean. I couldn’t believe it, and I knew then that this was someone I could totally depend on. We’d been friends, but not hugely close – it was mainly football-related.

“But that showed he really cared for me. It confirmed I was dealing with a special man.”

Sean Fallon: An undervalued giant remembered

First published in The Herald on 19 January 2013

The Sean Fallon you will read about in today’s obituaries is the devoted Celtic servant, the faithful right-hand man and fearless player.

Delve into any Celtic history and, accompanying his name, you’ll see the same adjectives: “reliable”, “honest”, “solid”, “wholehearted”. And it’s true, he was all of these things. But he was also so much more.

Over the past year, I had the privilege of working with him on an autobiography. Even before taking a single note, I considered his to be the great untold Celtic story and Fallon to be one of the club’s most influential and undervalued figures. I’ll admit now that I didn’t know the half of it.

I was aware, of course, that he had scouted and recruited several Celtic greats, and that all but one of the Lisbon Lions had been in place by the time Jock Stein arrived. I’d heard the famous story of him leaving his wife in the car – on their wedding anniversary, no less – to conclude unexpectedly lengthy signing talks with Kenny Dalglish.

But I would not have dared suggest that Fallon had signed more world-class players than anyone in Celtic’s history, save for the possible exception of Willie Maley. Now I have no hesitation in doing so. In fact, the names – Simpson, Gemmell, Auld, Murdoch, Dalglish, McGrain, Macari, Connelly, Hay and McStay – speak for themselves. Essentially, Fallon recruited most of one European Cup-winning team, then assembled another – arguably more talented – only to see them sold off before their potential could be realised.


Jock Stein recognised his eye for talent, trusted in it, and was richly rewarded. Fallon had free rein to recruit young players and was a constant companion on the manager’s trips to assess signing targets and European opponents. Back at Celtic Park, he played an equally important role in soothing friction with the players, all of whom mention the Irishman’s uncanny knack of knowing when and how to heal Stein-inflicted wounds. “Big Jock didn’t do peacemaking,” explains Billy McNeill. “Sean, with that Irish charm, was born for it. There would have been many more fall-outs without him around.”

Even the relationship between Stein and Fallon has its surprises. It is no secret they worked well and closely together, but the extent of their friendship and ways in which their careers were intertwined is remarkable. I had no idea their families would enjoy frequent day trips to the coast together, or that Stein – “Uncle Jock” – would accompany Fallon on the morning school run.

Fallon was the junior partner in their working relationship, but he was a man to whom Stein had been indebted since December 13, 1952. That was the date on which Fallon was made Celtic captain, recognising his position among the club’s most established and influential players. Stein, by contrast, had joined just 12 months earlier and was still scrapping to earn a regular first-team place amid scepticism about his age and ability. Nonetheless, in selecting his deputy, the new skipper opted not for established internationals such as Bobby Evans or Bertie Peacock, but for the journeyman centre-half just signed from non-league Llanelli. An injury to Fallon meant Stein took the armband just weeks later, and the rest forms the greatest chapter in the club’s history. “A lot of people weren’t happy with my choice,” Fallon would recall. “But I saw something special in Jock.”

Not for the last time, Fallon had been the first to identify extraordinary talent. Indeed, it was this same appreciation of Stein’s unique abilities that enabled Fallon to selflessly and willingly stand aside in 1965 when his old pal was given the job he had been groomed for. “I could see that Jock was what Celtic needed,” was his explanation.

The man with the inimitable, gravelly Sligo accent enjoyed a unique perspective on the most turbulent and successful period in the club’s history, and shared with Neilly Mochan the distinction of having played his part in its two greatest triumphs. But while his contribution to Lisbon and the 7-1 win over Rangers was considerable, it would be a mistake to conclude that Fallon’s story begins and ends with black-and-white images and long-gone glories. He left Celtic with their best player of the 1980s and 90s in Paul McStay, and at Dumbarton maintained his knack for unearthing talent by signing  teenagers Graeme Sharp and Owen Coyle. Sir Alex Ferguson, a long-standing friend, also credits Fallon with having a major influence on the early stages of his managerial career.

Yet if you’re wondering why someone so extraordinary is consistently portrayed merely as “trustworthy” and “dependable”, it is because his humility facilitated this typecasting. And perhaps that’s what impressed me most about Fallon. Ask him about Dalglish and McGrain and he would say, “Ah, they were Celtic’s signings, son. Not Sean Fallon’s.” Enquire about his playing achievements and he would stress how much better others were. Discuss the shabby way he was treated at the end and he would lament only that his departure broke Celtic’s historic links with Sligo.

Fortunately, the men who worked with him had no such reservations. It had been my great hope that Sean would be recognised for the giant he is while still alive, through their words and this book – his book. But I realise now that’s not important. Public recognition was something he never craved. Sean Fallon died peacefully with his beloved family gathered round him, having enriched the lives of all those fortunate enough to have known him. Nothing I or anyone else could write can ever compete with that.

The Ibrox Disaster: A life saved on Fallon’s darkest day

Sean Fallon was halfway through his 91st year when he passed away in January 2013.

Having lived a rich and eventful life, he had found it impossible – sifting through a multitude of professional triumphs and personal joys – to pick out his greatest day. But there was no hesitation in identifying his worst. Today marks its 44th anniversary.

Few will need reminded of what January 2, 1971 represents, or that 66 people lost their lives, crushed to death as they made their way from a football match. Those who attended that infamous Old Firm derby will never forget. For the rest of us, images of horribly twisted guide rails are vivid enough hints of the horror that unfolded.

Fallon merely witnessed the aftermath, and that was appalling enough. Celtic’s assistant manager watched as, throughout Ibrox – in dressing rooms, on tables and on the turf itself – the dead and dying were laid out alongside the badly injured. He had shepherded the players out of the stadium to make room for the casualties, and alongside Jock Stein, Neilly Mochan, Bob Rooney and the Rangers backroom staff, remained behind to help wherever he could.

What he remembered – he was speaking just a few weeks before his death, tears welling in his eyes – were the young faces. The dead had, after all, included five school-friends from the same Fife village, and 31 teenagers in total. The youngest victim was just nine. Hence the certainty with which Fallon reflected on the Ibrox Disaster over four decades later.

“That was the worst day of my life,” he declared unequivocally. “Seeing all those kids lying there and having to carry their bodies, I’ll never forget it. For a young boy to go to watch his team and never come home, it should never have been allowed to happen. It was just heart-breaking. I shed more than a few tears, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I still get emotional thinking about it.

“What happened that day was more important than all the football in the world. At a time like that, you’d gladly forget about trophies and winning Old Firm matches if those people could be back with their families. I think everyone who had been there that day would have gone home and just thanked God their own family was safe. And you never forget about it. How could you? I can still see those poor boys now. It breaks my heart just thinking about it.”

At Fallon’s side amid the chaos had been an old playing adversary and long-time friend, Willie Waddell. The then Rangers manager likened the initial scene to Belsen, saying that the tangled corpses reminded him immediately of the images from the Nazi concentration camp. “My God, it was hellish,” Waddell recalled. “My own training staff and the Celtic training staff were working at the job of resuscitation, and we were all trying everything possible to bring breath back to those crushed limbs.”

As someone qualified in first aid, having trained as a lifeguard during his days as a champion swimmer in Sligo, Fallon was especially busy. And his efforts were not in vain. Indeed, while researching the Irishman’s biography, I learned of a youngster – seemingly left for dead – who owed his life to Celtic’s assistant manager. The boy in question had stopped breathing, and with paramedics overwhelmed and focusing on those with the best chance of survival, his frantic father had pleaded with Stein’s deputy to do what he could.

“I was trained to give the kiss of life, so naturally I tried my best to save him,” Fallon recalled. “After a while, we thought we could see some movement. So we kept at it and eventually, thank God, the lad started breathing again. He survived, I know that. That was one good story to come out of that day; I just wish there had been more like it. All I know is that it wasn’t for the lack of trying, and it wasn’t just me. Bob Rooney [Celtic’s trainer] and the Rangers physio – anyone who knew what they were doing, in fact – were going round, looking to help whoever they could.”


Though instinct had kicked in those crucial early hours, Fallon returned home to the full, devastating realisation of what he had witnessed. “That was a dreadful night,” remembered his wife, Myra. “Sean just sat there, sobbing. We couldn’t get anything out of him. All he kept saying was that these poor boys had been lying there without a mark on them.”

Billy McNeill wrote in his autobiography that it was with “the look of haunted men” that Fallon and Stein returned to work the following week. Both attended several of the ensuing funerals, while Fallon led the offertory procession at a special St Andrew’s Cathedral service attended by players, staff and supporters from both sides. A few days later, he watched approvingly from the touchline as Celtic Park observed a sombre and flawless minute’s silence.

Amid the desolation, hope did flicker briefly that the disaster would prove a watershed not only in stadium safety, but in relations between Glasgow’s warring football tribes. “This terrible tragedy must help to curb the bigotry and bitterness of Old Firm matches,” was the wish expressed by Stein on the front page of the following week’s Celtic View. It would be a forlorn hope. The resumption of hostilities, and the return to business as usual, was swift.

Yet Stein’s description of the bitterness in that same article as “sordid and little” was a view long held by the manager and his deputy. “We had no time for all that sectarian stuff,” said Fallon. “All the division and hatred – it was a load of nonsense. The players, certainly when Jock and I were playing, wanted nothing at all to do with it. We played hard against each other, but we were great friends. I often wished the supporters could have seen that.

“We would go out socialising, and I got on very well with the likes of George Young – big Corky we called him – and Willie Thornton. Deedle [Waddell] would be there too; he and I were great pals right up until he died. He was one of the best players I ever came up against. He was big for a winger and, naturally, I’d try to cut him down to size a bit.

“We always got on very well. He even proposed me for Pollok Golf Club, which was very tough to get into at the time. He told me: ‘I’ll get you in, Sean. But no kicking me when we’re out on the course.’ I told him I was making no promises.”

This Rangers legend was someone of whom Fallon spoke often. “Deedle felt the same way about his team as I did about mine,” he would say admiringly. To the Irishman, this devotion to a rival club established Waddell not as an enemy, but as a kindred spirit.

Fallon never lost sight of the fact that they were united by a great deal more than that which divided them. And he never forgot the day they were united in grief.

The sale that sparked Celtic’s decline

Published in The Evening Times on 19 December 2014

Celtic are often assumed to have peaked as a footballing force in 1967. Yet it was the start of the 1970s, with most of the Lisbon Lions still the right side of 30 and the Quality Street Gang coming of age, that the club was at its strongest.

This latter group of players, assembled by Sean Fallon, included the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Davie Hay, Danny McGrain, Lou Macari and George Connelly, and was described even by Billy McNeill as having more talent than the Lions.

By the time Jock Stein’s side beat Leeds United home and away in the 1970 European Cup semi-final, the outlook appeared clear. “Celtic,” wrote Brian Scovell, a Fleet Street veteran, “are surely destined to become Europe’s soccer supremos of the 1970s.”

McNeill had believed the same, saying the club – thanks to Fallon’s talent-spotting and Stein’s management – had in place “the basis for mastery in European football for many years”.  And yet, well before the end of the decade, Celtic were to be found crashing out to the likes of FSV Zwickau and SWW Innsbruck, and were soon grateful simply to qualify for Europe at all.

So, what changed? And when did the rot set in? Many fans remember the departure of Dalglish, the idol of that era, as the psychological blow from which their club never recovered. Yet results, both domestic and continental, show that Stein’s side had been on the slide for years before King Kenny left for Anfield.

Fallon and others within the club instead reflected on 1974 as a major turning point. It was a year in which Celtic reached the semi-finals of the European Cup for the fourth and final time and won the last of the club’s nine successive championships. And it was no coincidence that both were achieved in the months before Davie Hay was sold to Chelsea.


Hay was not the first of the Quality Street Gang to be offloaded. Manchester United had earlier paid £200,000 – a then-record fee for a Scottish player – to take Lou Macari to Old Trafford. But Macari, while undoubtedly a fine striker, operated in area where Celtic enjoyed an embarrassment of riches, with Dalglish, Dixie Deans and Harry Hood all well capable of maintaining existing standards.

Hay, on the other hand, was widely seen as the indispensable heartbeat of that early ’70s side. “People talk about the game’s hard men, the Roy Keanes and such like,” said Billy McNeill, “but Davie was harder and more talented than Keane.” Legendary sportswriter Brian Glanville was in full agreement, naming Hay in a his ‘Best of Britain XI’ and describing him as “the prototype of the player of the ’70s… the all-purpose player every manager dreams of discovering.”

Fallon, as the man who discovered him, was acutely aware of Hay’s true worth. Speaking in his authorised biography, ‘Sean Fallon: Celtic’s Iron Man’, he said: “Davie was only 16 when I signed him and it was Chelsea we were up against then too. I nipped in just when he and his father were due to meet Tommy Docherty, Chelsea’s manager at the time, at the North British Hotel.

“People say I signed him for the price of two footballs; actually, the footballs weren’t even needed. I just gave them to his boys’ guild team as a thank you for their work in developing Davie, and the two priests who ran the team were absolutely delighted. But it was such a small price to pay. Davie turned out to be a brilliant all-round footballer, one of those players you could rely on in any situation.”

Hay’s talents quickly established him as a key player for both Celtic and Scotland, and it was while on international duty that he learned he was earning several times less than colleagues south of the border. He had also discovered the hard way that Celtic’s bonus-heavy wage structure made no allowances for bad luck, with a serious injury having denied him the opportunity to top up his modest salary.

“Davie’s point was a fair one: that injured players were getting a rough deal,” said Fallon. “He wasn’t being unreasonable at all. I couldn’t say anything at the time but, having been injured a fair bit myself, I agreed with him. The board wouldn’t give any ground at all though, so Davie went out on strike with George Connelly later in the year.

“What annoyed me later, especially after he left, was that Davie was made out to be greedy. There was a comment made that he and Lou had fancied the bright lights down in England, when it had nothing at all to do with that. It was Celtic who had been slow to move with the times. I’m not saying the club should have matched what was being paid down south, but they could have at least narrowed the gap. That would have been enough for those players because both of them wanted to stay at Celtic.”

With industrial action having failed to achieve its objective, Hay was indeed prepared to cut a deal. But Chelsea had slapped in a bid of £250,000 and, despite the player excelling on his return from strike and starring at the 1974 World Cup, chairman Desmond White was eager to cash in. It would prove a disastrous decision. Danny McGrain, in his 1978 autobiography, wrote that with the departure of Hay, “a special bit of character left the club and was never replaced”.

For Celtic, it was the beginning of the end. Connelly, who had lost in Hay his only friend, began a self-destructive descent that mirrored the club’s inexorable slide. “I was at a board meeting when they were talking about selling Davie, and I told them then: ‘If you sell Davie, you might as well sell George too’,” said Fallon. “And I didn’t take any pleasure from being right on that one because, believe me, George Connelly could have been one of the best in the world.”

The same could have been said of that particular Celtic team. But its potential was squandered within a few short years, with Hay’s departure the point of no return.

‘Sean Fallon: Celtic’s Iron Man’ is available on Amazon and all high street stores; it is also available as an ebook in all formats

Burns & Fallon: Celtic’s Selfless Servants

I was in my first season as a Celtic employee when Tommy Burns returned to assist the then stand-in manager, Kenny Dalglish. While Dalglish moved on, Burns remained, continuing in various roles and emerging as one the few constants during my seven years with the club. I will surprise no-one by remembering him as a great man: warm, funny, hard-working and insightful.

More recently, Tommy’s name cropped up frequently during my research and interviews for the biography of Sean Fallon. Indeed, Sean himself spoke often of this favourite former pupil and, naturally, his memories stretched back considerably further than mine.

“I remember visiting Tommy’s house to speak to him and his family about signing him for Celtic,” said Fallon. “It was actually a car dealer who had tipped us off about him being a player worth checking out, and what a great recommendation it was. Tommy was a tremendous player for Celtic. A lovely lad too. I liked him from the start, both as a person and as a footballer. He was a Celtic-type player, I always thought. Jock took a bit of convincing on him initially. He didn’t think Tommy would make it at first, and I had to argue his corner. But Jock was never stubborn or proud about things like that; he would be happy if a player proved him wrong, as Tommy undoubtedly did.”

Burns’ death, like the earlier losses of Ronnie Simpson, Bobby Murdoch and Jimmy Johnstone, affected Fallon deeply. “I’m not ashamed to say I shed a few tears,” he confided. “What people maybe don’t realise is that these boys become like sons to you. You always keep an eye on them and all that they go on to do in life. Tommy was one we were all fond of. Just a lovely man with a lovely family.”

Sadly, Burns wasn’t around to return such compliments, or to share his memories of Fallon. Yet one of the most poignant moments in researching Sean’s story came in finding a speech from 2002, when Tommy had travelled to Sligo to attend his former coach’s 80th birthday party. The story he recounted that day proved that it wasn’t merely on the training ground that Fallon’s influence had rubbed off.

“The buzzword at any youth game when I was growing up was that Sean Fallon was there watching,” Burns told the guests. “Everyone at that time knew Sean was in charge of the signings at Celtic. And what a man he was. The way he treated the young players always stayed with me.

“I was 15 when I started working at Celtic Park, and Sean had obviously noticed I was coming in without a coat in the cold weather. One day he called me over and said [mimicking Fallon’s accent]: ‘Son, have you not got yourself something you can wear to keep yourself warm?’ ‘Not really, Mr Fallon,’ I said. Five minutes later he came back with £10, which was serious money then, and told me to go and buy myself a heavy coat or a warm jumper. That kind of thing you don’t easily forget.”

The tale was a reminder, were any needed, that these two men held a great deal more in common than unshakeable mutual affection. Staff and young players from Tommy’s era will be able to tell similar stories, of a man who treated everyone – from star players to office workers – with the same personal touch. Burns, like Fallon before him, took an interest in people. He cared, and it showed. Success, status – neither changed him.

These great men were also bound not only by decency and integrity, but by a genuine and uplifting love of Celtic. Though both had their pride hurt and hearts broken by the club, each willingly, selflessly and without hesitation accepted lesser roles to continue serving. And in their scouting, coaching and youth development work, there was the same devotion and diligence that had marked out their careers on the pitch and in the dugout.

Frank McGarvey, an old team-mate of Tommy’s and former neighbour of Sean’s, highlighted this likeness in an interview for Fallon’s book. “I always think of Tommy and Sean as the two Mr Celtics,” he said. “No-one ever gave more to the club than those two did.”

Burns and Fallon saw things differently. They viewed themselves not as giving, but as receiving. “A supporter who got lucky,” was how Tommy famously described himself. Celtic, Sean insisted, had “made all my dreams come true”. “All I can think is that the man upstairs must have looked down and thought: ‘Ah, he’s alright, let’s give him this one’,” the Irishman would say, smiling broadly. “I know I’ve been one of the lucky ones.”

As Celtic supporters, the good fortune was all ours. The debt we owe these humble giants remains incalculable.

Stephen Sullivan

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