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.”

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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.

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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

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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.

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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