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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.