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.”