They often say that, with the benefit of hindsight, your vision is 20/20. For the 20,000 match-goers congregated on the slopes at Celtic Park on a wet December day in 1951, they may well have changed their whistles to cheers at the announcement of a new signing had they known what the future held.
Jock Stein was making his debut in the Celtic defence following a move back to Scotland from Llanelly for a relatively small fee. To say the Celtic support was underwhelmed by the signing would probably be an understatement.
At the time, we were struggling to put the ball in the net, and most fans would have been looking for a striker to help improve our position in the league, but in truth we were also losing goals and games that we shouldn’t have been. During November, a 2-1 defeat away to Stirling Albion was closely followed by a 4-0 loss at the hands of Queen of the South at the home of the Doonhamers. The team needed a strong head to help steady the defence.
Jock Stein had made his name in the Scottish game as a reliable defender with Albion Rovers in the late ‘40s, playing just under 100 matches for the Coatbridge side. In 1950, Jock swapped the part-time football of Cliftonhill and life in the coalmines of Lanarkshire for a professional contract with Llanelly in Wales. But, just one year and 44 matches later, Stein found himself back in Scottish football in the East End of Glasgow.
With seven players from the 1951 Scottish Cup-winning side on the field at kick-off, the Celtic team to face St Mirren was full of big names, but not so much big performances. The fans that made the effort to attend the match in some dismal weather were treated to an enthralling match with superb “inside-forward” play and great goals.
Celtic were 2-0 up by half time, thanks to two goals from young forward James Lafferty. James had made his debut one week earlier at Celtic Park, and these goals were his first for the club. St Mirren would pull a goal back midway through the second-half through their inside-forward Tommy Gemmell.
The entertaining match would finish 2-1 to Celtic with Collins and McPhaill taking the plaudits for the home side, and Gemmell receiving praise for St Mirren. There was even special mention for Jock Stein in steadying the Celtic defence.
The season would end in disappointment with Celtic being knocked out the Scottish Cup by Third Lanark and finishing ninth in a league of 16 teams. However, the purchase of an unfancied centre-back that season would have an incredible effect on the club in the years to come, it also ignited a friendship that would reshape the history of the club as Jock Stein and Sean Fallon coached the team to an unparalleled period of success in Scottish and European football just 16 years later.
Martin DonaldsonListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast