Neil Lennon and other good men


by Kenneth Roy

As it happens, I have proof that the beleaguered manager of Celtic football club, Neil Lennon, is a good sort.  Mr Lennon, who has a young family, spent part of last Christmas Day visiting dying people in a hospice.  I know this not because he issued a press release about it, which he didn’t, but because I heard it from someone who was in his company.

You don’t have to be a saint to give up part of your Christmas Day to support the dying, but nor do you deserve to have death threats and be the object of vilification and nor should silly people be demanding that you be charged with breach of the peace for having a heated exchange with your oppo number from the old enemy.  The reaction to the incident has been more juvenile than the incident itself.  We are still not quite grown-up as a nation.

Just as I have never met Neil Lennon, I have never met Ally McCoist, but I have always liked him for being bright, articulate and a bit cheeky: he is somehow archetypically Scottish.  Could a reconciliation somehow be arranged at this critical hour?  We could do with the pragmatic wisdom of a Marje Proops; I learn that, unfortunately, she appears to have been dead for some years.  In her absence, we must make do with Uncle Alex, who, as I write this, faces a difficult day at the chief constable’s hurriedly organised ‘top-level summit’ to which the first minister, perhaps misguidedly, agreed.

It may be worth considering – since Neil and Ally are the principal villains of the piece – when it became de rigueur (as they say in Parkheid) for football managers to behave impeccably at work.  Last summer I shared a car with Alex Ferguson, the greatest manager of the present era, who impressed me with his unaffected humanity.  The other Alex Ferguson – the one I observe at a distance in his day job – chews gum in an aggressive fashion, abuses refs, is banished regularly from the touchline, loathes the Arsenal manager with a passion, and has refused to talk to the BBC since John Reith was a lad.  He has even been known to be unaccountably harsh to the Blessed David Beckham, the nearest thing we have to the late Queen Mother.

But there is no essential contradiction: these men are the same Alex Ferguson.  The passionate, often bad-tempered incarnation we see on television is the driven personality who believes, at the grand old age of 69 going on 19, that retirement is best left to the young.  I am with him on that one; there comes a point when it is too late to retire.  Or even to buy an Aston Martin.

If it is role models for the young we are after, perhaps we should force our football managers into pinstripe suits and demand that they behave like bankers.

I didn’t find the young Jock Stein attractive in the least.  We met in the dressing room at Ochilview, the home of the mighty Stenhousemuir, when Stein was managing Dunfermline and I was a 16-year-old covering the Cup mismatch for the Dundee Evening Telegraph, a paper that required a running commentary on all things from world wars to second division football.

My first duty of the afternoon was to ask the opposing managers for their teamsheets.

Stein rattled his off at top speed; I got the impression that, for some reason, he was not happy to be in Stenhousemuir.

“McPherson?” I interrupted.  “How do you spell that?”

I still remember the snarling malevolence of his reply.

“How the **** do you think you spell it?” he asked rhetorically.

The matter of McPherson was not pursued.

When he was managing Scotland and near the end, we were introduced socially at the BBC.  He was benign and mellow, exuding warmth.  But at work he was always noted for ruthlessness, switching affection on and off as it suited him.

Kevin McCarra of the Guardian recalled in a profile of Stein in this magazine how, some time after the great man’s death, two former Celtic players were walking towards a supporters’ club where they were due to speak.   “How could we ever tell them what a bastard he was?” said one to the other.  Among many stories of his working methods, Stein woke Willie Wallace one morning at the Seamill training camp and told him that he must speak to some Crystal Palace officials because he was to be sold.  There was no word of thanks for Wallace’s years of service to the club; no explanation.

But it was the same Stein, the former coal-miner, who, in his early playing days, handed over to Mick McGahey, the trade union leader, the little money he had earned while playing on the Saturday for Albion Rovers because he did not think it right that he should have any money, even the pittance Albion Rovers paid him, while his striking mates had nothing.  Forty years on, he was seen cramming much larger sums into the miners’ collection can during another strike.

These men – the humanitarian socialist and the hard-as-nails professional – were one and the same.

In the cause of a radio programme about sectarianism in football, I telephoned Willie Waddell, the Rangers manager, and recorded our conversation without telling him: a mean, underhand technique which I justified to myself on the grounds of a greater morality.  I explained that I was ‘doing some research’ and would welcome his thoughts.  He was revealingly abusive.  I understood it to be his natural style.

About five minutes into the rant, fuelled by lunchtime consumption, Waddell paused, drew breath, and declared in a belligerent tone: “Wait a minute. Ye’re … ye’re bloody well recordin’ this, aren’t ye?” I fessed up.  Not that we talked about fessing up in those days. “I’ll hiv ye,” he roared. “I”ll give this tae the papers.   I’ll file an official complaint to yer management.  Ye hear me?”

Willie Waddell was as good as his word.  The following morning, I was all over the front page of the Scottish Daily Express, which enjoyed something of a reputation as the club’s unofficial journal.  Yet even he must have had a softer, human side, for a portrait of him hangs in our local, the Goldberry Arms, and in it he is smiling.  A unique moment, perhaps.

Of all the football managers I have met, Craig Brown is the exception.  He is not only intelligent and thoughtful but amiable and courteous.  But there is a tough, uncompromising centre about all the others.  Why should we expect otherwise of people who have fought their way to the top of an intensely competitive game?  Of course Neil and Ally should have restrained themselves and saved us the bother of today’s top-level summit.  But if it is role models for the young we are after, perhaps we should force our football managers into pinstripe suits and demand that they behave like bankers.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.

image by Bob Smith