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Wales v Scotland: Final whistle for Scottish legend Jock Stein

With Scotland playing in Wales tonight, Robin Scott-Elliot reflects on Jock Stein's death at the same fixture 27 years ago

The last instruction Jock Stein issued as a manager, in a career that had stretched over a decorated quarter of a century, was to send Davie Cooper, an erratic winger in the best Scottish traditions, on to the Ninian Park pitch. Off came Gordon Strachan. There were 29 minutes remaining, Stein's Scotland trailed Wales by a Mark Hughes goal and defeat meant the road to the 1986 World Cup finals would be barred.

"He started out making great decisions and he went out with a great decision – taking me off!" Strachan was to say. There were 10 minutes remaining when Cooper scored, scudding home a low penalty. Little more than 10 minutes later Stein was dead. Graeme Souness, suspended for the game, stood outside the room where Stewart Hillis, Scotland's doctor and Stein's own GP, was fighting to save Stein's life. Soon Souness was wandering down the corridor, tears running down his face. "He's gone," he said.

Television pictures of the night, in September 1985, captured Scottish celebrations beginning on the pitch, as a point knocked out Wales and meant the Scots went into a play-off to earn a place in Mexico the following summer. Then suddenly there was Stein being carried down the tunnel by a posse of policemen, a confused look pinned on his face. He disappeared from the camera's view. He was 62. "Time stopped," says Maurice Malpas, who played at full-back that night.

Alongside Stein on the bench for the match was Alex Ferguson, his assistant. There is a black-and-white picture that captures the moment Stein first collapsed – he had mistaken a free-kick for the final whistle and moved to shake hands with Mike England, his opposite number, and shoo away the photographers who had clustered around to capture his latest moment of triumph. In the background a fresh-faced Ferguson looks on with alarm as another member of the Scotland staff reaches for the tumbling Stein.

"For people like myself, Jock was the precursor of all the deeds and challenges we needed to aim at," Ferguson wrote in his autobiography. "He would never take the praise himself. It was always about the players and how great the team were. The magnanimity tells you everything about him. For any man seeking to further his education in football, Jock Stein was a one-man university."

Stein learnt his football the hard way. He followed his father down the pits in between playing for Albion Rovers before belatedly joining Celtic, where his leadership qualities became apparent. Injury forced retirement and he began his managerial career with Dunfermline, taking them into Europe. In 1965, having turned down a number of English clubs, he returned to Celtic and it was there his reputation was for ever cemented; a first league title in 12 years and then in 1967 the European Cup, the first British winners.

He took over Scotland in 1978, leaving Leeds after just 44 days. He steered them to the 1982 finals and then set out on the road to Mexico. "In qualifying games you wear your working clothes," Stein liked to say. "You keep the best suit for the finals." Nevertheless, in the winter of 1984 Scotland produced one of their best performances of modern times, Kenny Dalglish rounding off a 3-1 victory over Spain in front of an enthralled Hampden Park. The old ground was less enamoured with a 1-0 home defeat by Wales and so it came down to having to take a point from Cardiff.

Stein was without Souness and the injured trio of Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Mo Johnston. But Scotland still had Stein. "He was idolised by the players," says Malpas, now assistant manager to Terry Butcher at Inverness Caledonian Thistle. "The way he spoke to you made you feel special. There were no airs or graces to the man."

The match was dominated by Wales. Hughes scored and at half-time they had a firm grip on the contest. In the Scotland dressing room, Stein's problems were mounting. Goalkeeper Jim Leighton had lost a contact lens and had no replacement. Alan Rough had to come on. Stein stood at the dressing-room door as the players went back out. Rough walked past. "Good luck, ya fat b*****d," Stein said.

It meant Scotland only had one substitution left and Stein turned to Cooper, who himself died tragically young, of a brain haemorrhage in 1995. Cooper took the responsibility after David Speedie's shot was handled by Dave Phillips and, although Neville Southall got a hand to the ball, it was not enough for Wales.

Stein had been on medication but stopped taking it in the build-up to the game. There is a suggestion he felt it was taking an edge off him. "We knew quickly something was wrong," recalls Malpas of the moments after the full-time whistle. "We were together on the pitch when one of the coaching staff told us. It was a long walk to the dressing room. We sat there for ages. The doctor told us what happened. Nobody wanted to move, all the good things from the game disappeared."