Triumph & Tragedy: The Night Football Lost Jock Stein

On this day in 1985, Scottish football lost a titan
10:00, 10 Sep 2023

It should have been one of the greatest nights in Scotland’s history as they secured a draw in Wales to progress to a play-off against Australia for a place in the 1986 World Cup finals; but as it turned out the evening of September 10 th 1985 would be shrouded in tragedy, not just for the Tartan Army, but for the footballing world as a whole.

When Davie Cooper converted a hotly disputed penalty in the closing minutes of this fiercely competitive encounter it all but ensured that Scotland would have at least one foot in next summer’s showpiece in Mexico, but the abiding image for many that night will be Scotland Manager Jock Stein being carried down the tunnel on the final whistle.

Indeed, Scotland’s joy lasted just a few minutes as one of the greatest managers in British football history died on a physiotherapist’s table at Cardiff’s Ninian Park having suffered a massive heart attack at the age of just 62.

To say the group qualifier that night was a tense affair would be something of an understatement. Scotland needed just a point to ensure they would progress to meet Australia in a two-legged play-off to decide who would earn the right to play at Mexico 86; whereas only a win would do for Wales.

So when, after just 14 minutes, Mark Hughes fired the home side ahead from close range, the pressure increased on Stein’s men; as it stood, they were going home and Wales would be heading to Australia.

To make things worse events had reached somewhat farcical proportions during half time in the Scotland dressing room when ‘keeper Jim Leighton had to be replaced by Alan Rough due to the fact that he had lost one of his contact lenses and hadn’t brought a spare.

“I didn’t know he wore contact lenses?” Scotland midfielder Gordon Strachan barked to then Assistant Manager and former Aberdeen boss Alex Ferguson, during the heated exchange. “Neither did I,” Ferguson shouted back.

But Scotland were literally handed a reprieve with just nine minutes remaining when an innocuous looking effort slammed against the arm of David Phillips, who knew very little about it. Davey Cooper duly dispatched his kick past Neville Southall and ultimately secured the point that Scotland needed.

It was Bedlam inside the ground as 12,000 Scotland fans celebrated deliriously behind the Welsh goal, but the euphoria wouldn’t last long. In the final seconds of the game the referee blew what many thought was the final whistle and climbing to his feet to console his opposite number, Mike England, Stein fell to his knees.

"He went forward a couple of yards, put his arm to his chest and fell to the floor,” the Wales boss would later explain and as the Scotland players celebrated it was the job of Stein’s assistant Alex Ferguson to rush onto the field and break the terrible news. “Big Jock's taken ill. Keep the boys on the pitch,” he would tell the group.

Meanwhile, in the medical room under the stadium, staff from both sides fought frantically to save Stein, who it was later revealed had been taking medication for a heart condition, and at first things looked optimistic with Stein even saying to those around him: “I’m feeling much better now.”

But things quickly took a dramatic change for the worse and an ashen-faced SFA secretary, Ernie Walker, eventually appeared from behind the closed door to announce the news that everyone had feared – Stein had died. "I saw our masseur, Jimmy Steel, in tears,”  Scotland’s Richard Gough remembers.  “At that moment I knew. No one had to tell me Big Jock had gone.”

The massed ranks of Scotland fans - who had planned to celebrate long into the Cardiff night - instead headed home in shock and disbelief at what they had witnessed while those watching at home were kept abreast of the terrible events that had followed the game courtesy of “News at Ten.”

Scotland, under caretaker manager Alex Ferguson, would go on to qualify for the World Cup after beating Australia in the play-off, but the loss of Stein would overshadow any on-pitch achievements for some time to come.

As a club manager he had won 10 league titles, eight Scottish Cups, six League Cups and a European Cup with Celtic and as an international boss he had taken Scotland to the 1982 World Cup in Spain – rightfully earning him the reputation as one of the country’s greatest managers ever.

Remembering that fateful night some years later, Scotland’s reserve goalkeeper Alan Rough, who had been thrust into action at half time, due to the fact that their first choice number one was missing a contact lens, prefers to recall the lighter side of his last ever exchange with his former boss.

"As I walked out of the dressing room Big Jock was standing near the door, his last words to me were, "Good luck, ya fat bastard.’”

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