Eric McCoy1 Comment


Eric McCoy1 Comment

Scotland were close. A Davie Cooper penalty had put the Tartan Army level with Wales in the 81st minute of their pivotal qualifying match for the 1986 World Cup. If they could see out the last nine minutes plus stoppage time, Scotland would be secured of no worse than a playoff for a spot in football’s most prestigious tournament.

As the seconds ticked away, anxiety levels around the stadium soared to uncomfortable heights. Scottish Football Association administrator Ernie Walker and suspended Scotland captain Graeme Souness slipped away to a VIP room to partake in some nerve-soothing gin and tonics. A lot was on the line. It was enough to put anyone on edge.

Scotland manager Jock Stein was on edge. At least he looked it. According to some, the legendary manager hadn’t looked well throughout the day. His assistant Alex Ferguson had noticed it. Scotland midfielder Gordon Strachan had noticed it.

“Physically, he didn’t look so well. I’d never seen him like that before. He was a bit grey. I understand now, as a football manager, how you can go a bit that way. But he was perspiring,” Strachan would later recall.

The final whistle crept closer. A photographer suffered the misfortune of impeding Stein’s view of the pitch. ‘Admonished’ may not be strong enough a word for the verbal lashing Stein gave him. Around two minutes from the match’s conclusion the referee’s whistle blew and Stein stood up thinking the match was over. He then collapsed. Four policemen carried him to the stadium’s medical room where doctors were unable to revive him. His last words were: “I’m feeling much better now, doc.”

Stein’s official cause of death was listed as pulmonary oedema or fluid in the lungs caused by heart disease. Stein was on heart medication, but had stopped taking the medicine prior to the match because he did not want any of the side effects to disrupt his focus. Scotland ultimately secured the draw and went on to defeat Australia in a playoff to advance to the World Cup, but minds were understandably elsewhere.

“Every manager dies a little during a game. I’d rather die in a dug-out than molder away in a director’s box,” Stein said in 1978. Few managers in history have had a passion for the game to rival Stein’s. One individual who could have staked a claim to matching Stein’s volcanic intensity for football was the Argentina-born Helenio Herrera, Stein’s managerial adversary on the night of his greatest achievement as a manger.

The 1967 European Cup final pitted Stein’s Celtic against Herrera’s Internazionale. Similar as the two managers were in their unwavering dedication to the sport, tactically they possessed contrasting reputations. Under Stein, Celtic were known for their relentless attacking play and it won them many plaudits amongst the press and neutral observers. “I think it is important to win a match, but I think what is even more important is the manner in which you win,” Stein proclaimed. Less beloved and less concerned with style points were Herrera and Inter Milan.

Catenaccio, which refers to the chain on a door in Italian, is the name that’s been applied to a polarizing, defensive-minded style of football that’s roots lie in former Austrian-born, Swiss-based manger Karl Rappan’s possession-averse verrou system of the 1930s. Seeking to make up for technical deficiencies inherent in his squads, Rappan set his teams up to absorb pressure from the opposition and strike quickly on counterattacks. Successful, Rappan’s concepts spread, particularly to Italy where the ‘catenaccio’ moniker was born. Helenio Herrera’s Inter were not the first team in Italy to play catenaccio, but they would become its most famous practitioners.

After failing to win the Serie A title in his first two seasons with the Nerazzurri utilizing an attacking system similar to the one he had featured in his previous position at Barcelona, Herrera knew change was needed if he were to keep his ever-demanding job. Maybe it was the 9-1 dismantling delivered to Inter by Juventus in his first season in charge, or perhaps it was an eye at pointed at inter-city rivals AC Milan and the success their manager, Nereo Rocco, had achieved with his own brand of catenaccio, but Herrera set about making Inter more defensively solid for their 1962-63 campaign. It was a campaign that would mark the beginning of one of the greatest runs by a team in European football history.

Crucial to the defensively solidity that would become the bedrock for Inter’s success was Herrera’s deployment of a sweeper or libero behind their back line. Former AC Milan manager Giuseppe Viani claimed to have invented the concept of the libero during his time with the small Italian club Salernitana. His claim (which has been disputed by those who are not Viani himself) was that inspiration struck him while watching a fishing boat utilize two nets. One net caught fish while the second net caught the fish that the first net had missed. Thus the libero, a player positioned between the goalkeeper and defensive line to eliminate threats that seeped through the initial row of defenders, was (allegedly) born.

At Herrera’s Inter this ‘second net’ role was expertly played by club captain Armando Picchi. Tactically adept, and astute enough with his positioning to seemingly pop up anytime an opposing attacker was even considering firing a shot from inside Inter’s penalty area, Picchi provided license for other Nerazzurri players to launch forward more frequently than their reputation has suggested they did. In particular, full-back Giacinto Facchetti was a quick-sprinting revelation. He attacked in a manner more akin to the contemporary version of a full-back than of a full-back circa the 1960s. From the 1962-63 season through the 1967-68 season (the final season of Herrera’s initial spell at Inter), Facchetti netted a stunning 38 goals.

While not the one-dimensional brick wall history will frequently regard them as, Herrera’s Grande Inter, as they would become known, were still an absolute nightmare to score against. Inter scored 17 fewer goals in the 1962-63 season than the 73 they had scored in Herrera’s first season, but only conceding a comically stingy 20 goals in the campaign led to them being crowned Serie A champions. This defensive frugality would also extend to European competition. A Real Madrid team featuring all-time greats Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano were held to a single goal and subjected to a 3-1 defeat in the 1964 European Cup final. In 1965’s final, it was the brilliant Eusebio’s Benfica who found their attack smothered by Inter in a 1-0 loss.

In total, Herrera’s Inter went into the 1967 European Cup final against Jock Stein’s Celtic winners of three out of the last four Serie A titles and two out of the last three European Cups. The Italians were clear favorites. No British team had ever lifted the famous trophy with the big ears. Additionally, the squad that Stein brought with him to Lisbon for the final was distinctly un-cosmopolitan. Fourteen of the 15 players in Celtic’s squad were born and raised within 30 miles of Celtic Park.

“Looking at these Italians standing there, their blue and black outfits, their tanned faces, good looks and I turned round and looked at our mob and said ‘They must think this is a pub team they’re playing,’” Celtic captain Billy McNeill said of his thoughts prior to kick off on the juxtaposition between the two sides. Even with this contrast in pedigree, McNeill’s manager was not intimidated. “We are going to attack as we have never attacked before,” Stein said in a press conference ahead of the match.

Herrera’s Inter Milan may not have been as conservative as their detractors claimed, but there was no misconstruing the style of Jock Stein’s Celtic. Stein consistently sought to bludgeon the opposition with an uncompromising attack, and it was not a mindless flinging of bodies forward, either. Stein was considered in his approach. Not afraid to experiment with new ideas or formations, Stein arranged a mid-season friendly with Dinamo Zagreb in February 1967 with the purpose of unveiling, in his words, “a new and original system of play.” Stein continued: “Every man in the team will have a job to do with attack. So it will be a new, attacking Celtic team.”

That night Celtic played a then-novel 3-4-3 formation with several players swapping positions and even kit numbers (at that time a player’s kit number was generally still determined by his field position). Explosive left-back Tommy Gemmell was moved into midfield, and with Celtic’s three forwards positioned centrally inside Dinamo’s penalty area, he was given space to maraud forward freely. The system wasn’t entirely successful. Celtic’s three defenders were frequently exposed and Dinamo won the match 1-0, but the friendly (particularly in Gemmell’s forward explorations) functioned as a primer for the all-out attacking ferocity that would await Herrera and Inter in Lisbon.

Despite the attention he devoted to his Celtic team’s attack, Stein also understood the importance of not conceding an early goal in Lisbon and falling behind Inter and their chain-lock defense. 1-0 victories were Herrera’s specialty. Inter would often start matches fairly aggressively, actively seeking the first goal. When that goal arrived, Herrera would then have his players retreat and form the infamous fortress that few could breach, striking on counterattacks when appropriate. “The team that scores first in this final will win the European Cup,” Stein had theorized.

True to Herrera’s style, the Nerazzurri began the match looking for a quick goal. Not long after kick-off, Inter center forward Renato Cappellini ran onto a long ball that was launched forward from Inter’s own half. From a wide position inside Celtic’s penalty area, he sent in a devilish cross that met the forehead of onrushing midfielder Sandro Mazzola whose header was somehow kept out by the opportunistically placed knees of Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson. Fast and incisive, it was a classic Herrera attack. “In attack, all the players know what I wanted: vertical football at great speed, with no more than three passes to get to the opponent’s box,” was how Herrera summarized his attacking philosophy.

Shortly after the Simpson save (and almost immediately after Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone had a headed attempt tipped over the bar by Inter keeper Giuliano Sarti) the match’s frantic start continued when Cappellini once again proved himself a nuisance inside Celtic’s box. This time he was taken down by Celtic right-back Jim Craig and Inter were awarded a penalty. Sandro Mazzola converted and in the final’s seventh minute Stein’s fears of going a goal behind to Herrera’s impregnable Inter were realized.

The penalty appeared to be a straightforward decision from West German referee Kurt Tschenscher, but Stein was allegedly furious with the call. According Pat Woods, co-author of the book We’ll Always Have Lisbon that details the final, Stein was paranoid Herrera and Inter had conspired to influence the match’s refereeing decisions (match fixing allegations did follow Hererra throughout his career). Woods said: “At half-time, (Stein) had a go at the referee. He said he thought the penalty was bought. John Fallon, the reserve goalkeeper, saw this. According to John, he said ‘A penalty kick? You were conned! Where are you gonna get your villa?’”

And Stein’s anger was apparently not isolated to just Tschenscher. Woods also detailed how Herrera himself was supposedly caught in the crosshairs of Stein’s temper: “After his tirade at the referee, Jock then began to have a go at Herrera about his team’s tactics and their time wasting in particular as they went down the tunnel. Herrera tried to walk straight past him. But Jock kept on at him in his ear. When Herrera got to the dressing rooms he was so fed up he turned around and made an offensive gesture, the equivalent of the V sign, and Jock immediately grabbed him by his lapels. Giuliano Sarti, the Inter goalkeeper, had to intervene to stop the two men coming to blows.”

A meticulous planer like Stein was always going to have a razor sharp eye pointed towards all the variables that could influence a match or affect his team. This unrelenting focus on football matters could sometimes be taken to bizarre extremes. Former Celtic defender John Hughes experienced a particularly nasty example of Stein’s fastidiousness.

Hughes explained his story: “We were on a post-season tour to America in 1966 and my first wife, Mary, was pregnant at the time. I used to phone home every five or six days. Then I bumped into the sports reporter Ken Gallacher one morning and he said: ‘Sorry to hear your news.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about until he told me that Mary had had a miscarriage four days earlier. Jock knew but he hadn’t told me, so make up your own mind about that. When I asked him about it, he said ‘Ach, what could you do about it, anyway? You’re here and she’s there.’”

With Stein, the focus (perhaps questionably so at times) was always football. And in Lisbon, after Mazzola’s penalty, Stein’s focus would have been squarely on Celtic attaining an equalizer. The remainder of the first half following Inter’s goal gave credence to the complaints Stein allegedly spat at Herrera at half time. Inter were clearly sluggish in restarting play after stoppages, but that may have been less a deliberate time-wasting ploy from Herrera, and more the result of the Nerazzurri players simply being too physically drained from the non-stop Celtic pressure to move in an efficient manner.

“The best place to defend is in the opposition penalty box,” Stein once said, and that attitude was well on display in the aggressive positioning of Celtic’s midfield and back line. Like a boa constrictor gradually squeezing the life out of its prey, Celtic increasingly squashed Inter’s players into their own 18-yard box. Inter forays to the halfway line and beyond were rare occurrences, as Celtic’s disruptive pressing zapped the Italian’s counter attack of its regular lightning-strike potency. Still, despite Celtic generating several great scoring chances, the score remained 1-0 to Inter at the conclusion of the first half. Herrera’s players were hanging on, but barely.

Tenacious and resolute were descriptors that defined Herrera’s back-to-back European Cup winning Inter teams. In the second half in Lisbon, those characteristics were non-existent. Inter were forlorn and exasperated. The first half was just a cruel teaser for the onslaught the Italians would be subjected to in the final 45 minutes. Herrera’s use of a libero hardly mattered. Inter’s players spent the significant majority of the second half huddled in front of their own goal bracing themselves for the inevitable. These were the weakly flickering embers of a once fierce flame.

In Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, Inter defender Tarcisio Burgnich described the despondency he and his teammates felt as match progressed: “In the dressing-room at half time we looked at each other and we knew we were doomed. I remember at one point Picchi turned to the goalkeeper and said ‘Guiliano, let it go, just let it go. Sooner or later they’ll get the winner.’ I never thought I would hear those words. I never imagined my captain would tell our keeper to throw in the towel. But that shows how destroyed we were at that point. It’s as if we did not want to prolong the agony.”

Herrera’s demand for absolute focus from his players manifested itself even more radically than Stein’s. Herrera once suspended a squad player for telling the press ‘we came to play in Rome’ as opposed to saying ‘we came to win in Rome.’ After several years playing under the terminally obsessive Argentine, it is not difficult to imagine the Inter players’ spirits finally wilting under the Lisbon sun, especially when confronted with a rabid Celtic.

Burgnich described the Appiano Gentile training headquarters that Herrera confined Inter players to before matches: “The idea was that we would focus on the upcoming match and nothing else. During the retreat, you couldn’t leave; you would just train, eat and sleep. When we did get a free moment, there was nothing to do beyond playing cards. So you ended up doing nothing but thinking about the next game.”

Most damaging to Herrera’s legacy (and most indicative of his potentially maniacal quest for victory), were the persistent rumors that he forced his players to take amphetamines. In the autobiography of Ferruccio Mazzola (younger brother to Inter’s star midfielder Sandro Mazzola) there are striking claims of Herrera seeking a pharmaceutical edge on the opposition.

“I saw Helenio Herrera providing pills that were to be placed under our tongues,” the younger Mazzola said. “He used to experiment on us reserve players before giving them to the first-team players. Some of us would eventually spit them out. It was my brother Sandro that suggested that if I had no intention of taking them, to just run to the toilet and spit them out. Eventually Herrera found out and decided to dilute them in coffee.”

Ferruccio Mazzola’s claims are harrowing and offer an insight into just how extreme life under Herrera may have been. To be sure, there are few figures in the history of the sport as divisive as Herrera. Italian football columnist, Gianni Brera, summarized Herrera well: “Go ahead and judge him as the mood takes you. Clown and genius, buffoon and ascetic, rogue and model father, sultan and faithful husband, swaggering fool and quiet achiever, delinquent and competent, megalomaniac and health fanatic. Herrera is all of the above and more.” Against Celtic, the negative elements to Herrera’s volatile brand of genius eventually overwhelmed the positive and his team collapsed.

The first blow of the one-two knockout combination that Inter were dealt came in the 63rd minute. Echoing the midfield masquerading he had done in Celtic’s friendly against Zagreb that February, Tommy Gemmell shifted away from his full-back position to pop up centrally on the edge of the Italian’s penalty area. Right-back Jim Craig, in an advanced position of his own as he closed in on Guiliano Sarti’s 6-yard box, slid a cross over. Gemmell’s right boot lashed through the ball and sent it screaming into the back of the net. 1-1. Armando Picchi had requested that Sarti give up a goal deliberately, but not even a superlative effort from the Inter keeper could have stopped the rocket that Gemmell had launched.

Twenty-one minutes after Gemmell’s strike the death knell finally sounded on Inter. Celtic Midfielder Bobby Murdoch took a shot from a similar possession to the one Gemmell had scored his goal from, but Murdoch’s effort, understandably, lacked the same power. The slower pace of the shot proved inconsequential however, when Hoops’ striker Stevie Chalmers deflected the ball passed Sarti to mercifully end Inter’s attempts to stave off the unavoidable. 2-1 Celtic. Minutes later the unlikely lads from Glasgow were European champions. Grande Inter had been vanquished. Next season, Inter slumped to a fifth place finish in Serie A and Herrera subsequently left to manage Roma.

Not long before Gemmell’s equalizer television cameras captured a moment that succinctly exemplified the match and ultimately the crumbling of Inter’s impervious facade. A wayward Celtic shot attempt had just drifted over Sarti’s goal and Inter’s keeper utilized the ensuing break in play to grab onto his post and rest his head down on his arm. Through some of the most demanding (and maybe not always legitimate) coaching methods the sport has ever seen, Herrera had dragged his Inter players to the pinnacle of their profession. But the two-time European champions were tired. They had nothing left to give. Celtic’s two goals were as predictable as a morning’s sunrise.

Many hailed Celtic’s triumph as a statement victory for attacking football. “This attacking play, this is the real meaning of football. This is the true game,” a Portuguese official told Stein after the match. The post-mortem was less kind to Inter and Herrera. “It was inevitable. Sooner or later the Inter of Herrera, the Inter of catenaccio, of negative football, of marginal victories, had to pay for their refusal to play entertaining football,” Portuguese publication Mundo Desportivo declared. Even Herrera himself said: “Although we lost, the match was a victory for sport.”

The match went a long way towards calcifying the belief that Herrera’s Inter were little more than abominable (yet frequently successful) artistes of anti-football. It’s a simple, easily digestible narrative. In Lisbon, good football defeated evil football. And if one were to just glance at the statistics from the final, it would do little to dispel that view. Celtic outshot Inter 42-3 (!) and won 10 corners to Inter’s zero. After their early goal, Inter were positively toothless going forward on the day. It would be unfair however, to judge Herrera’s Nerazzurri exclusively on their dying gasps in Portugal.

History is generally more complicated than how it’s chosen to be remembered. Pale imitators of Herrera’s catenaccio lacking the talent and tactical acumen of Grande Inter have surfaced in abundance over the years, and it’s become easy shorthand for many to invoke Herrera’s name when describing any defensive minded team, even truly insipid ones. These trite comparisons have further muddled Herrera’s already complex legacy. “The problem is that most of the ones who copied me copied me wrongly. They forgot to include the attacking principles that my catenaccio included. I had Picchi as a sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full-back to score as many goals as a forward,” Herrera said. In Fecchetti’s soaring sprints down the left flank, Herrera’s tactics certainly contributed to the modernization of the now multi-dimensional full-back position.

But against Celtic, the Facchetti-aided, whip-fast counterattacks pivotal to Herrera’s philosophy and Inter’s trophy haul in the early to mid-1960s were never able to materialize. Defensive solidity was vitally important to Herrera, but it was only one component of his footballing doctrine. Dynamic and efficient forward attacking movements were crucial for his Inter as well. The Inter of Lisbon were only operating at a fraction of their prowess. A match of the magnitude of 1967’s European Cup final was always going to cast a long shadow and that shadow has darkened how Herrera’s tactics have been retrospectively perceived.

For Jock Stein though, the match was the defining moment in a remarkable career. At the conclusion of the 1966-67 season, Stein’s Celtic were European champions and they had just won their second of what would become nine consecutive Scottish first division titles. Under Stein, Celtic were so dominant that attendance figures in Scotland declined to such an extent that a reconstruction of the Scottish Football League was implemented in 1975. Not unlike Herrera, Stein guided his teams to a dominance that at times suffered from underappreciation.

The impact both managers had on the sport has given them relevancy that has extended into modern times. Echoes of Herrera’s cantankerous strain of self-belief can be heard in the press conferences of another controversial, highly successful former Inter Milan manager: Jose Mourinho. And like Herrera, Mourinho’s tactics have endured their fair share of criticism as well. The comparisons between the two ex-Nerazzurri bosses have been as plentiful as they’ve been easy to make.

Alex Ferguson has spoken of the influence Stein had on his incomparable career, particularly while working together with him on the Scottish national team. “You are working with someone who has won the European Cup, nine championships in a row…I bombarded him with a million questions every time I was in his company. It was just football, football, football,” Ferguson said.

Football, football, football. It’s a good way to summarize Stein. It’s a good way to summarize Herrera. Ferguson was tasked with taking over as manager of Scotland after Stein’s death, and despite advancing passed Australia in the qualification playoff the Tartan Army’s 1986 World Cup was disappointing. Scotland finished last in a difficult group. In some respects, it’s impossible to ‘take over’ for a figure as prominent as Stein. After Celtic’s victory over Inter in Lisbon, legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankley justifiably told Stein: “John, you’re immortal now.”


Eric is Editor of The Away Goals Rule.