Brian Viner: Farewell to two familiar faces of the Seventies

Monday 16 February 2004 01:00

There was symmetry as well as sadness in the recent deaths of two great football men, Bob Stokoe and Ally MacLeod, and this column would have paid tribute sooner had it not become hopelessly sidetracked these last couple of weeks by the pesky business of whether one person can be forgiven for supporting two teams.

Stokoe and MacLeod were roughly the same age and departed the earthly touchline on the same day. There are enduring images of both men which encapsulate football in the Seventies every bit as much, if not even more than, Bob Hazell's hairdo.

Moreover, Stokoe's joyful adventure with Sunderland had an impact, as did MacLeod's less happy adventure five years later with Scotland, which transcended football.

It is strange when people die having once loomed large over one's childhood or adolescence. You know the sort of people I mean: icons such as Elvis Presley, Keith Moon, Freddie Mercury, Leslie Crowther. Their passing brings an uncomfortable reminder of mortality and the ageing process.

Stokoe's death took me back, as doubtless it did every football fan over the age of 40, to that magical day in May 1973 when Second Division Sunderland somehow overcame mighty Leeds United to win the FA Cup. Younger readers should be aware that giant-killing cup finals in those days meant more than Chelsea beating Arsenal.

Anyway, one of the most potent sporting images of the entire century was that of Stokoe, at the final whistle, scampering across the Wembley turf (another note to younger readers: in those days, the English FA Cup final was held in England) to embrace his heroic goalkeeper, Jim Montgomery.

I remember thinking at the time that he was pretty damn nimble for an old guy. But now I find that he was only 42, the age I am now. Since I read his obituaries I have been relentlessly informing my contemporaries that they are the same age Bob Stokoe was in 1973, and without exception they have registered astonishment before seeking the nearest mirror, if only to see whether they have started to sprout a trilby.

Sunderland's Cup run that season by all accounts had a significant effect on productivity in local factories and shipyards. You'd have thought that absenteeism might have increased with all those hangovers, but in fact it diminished.

Everyone wanted to go to work on Monday mornings, albeit mainly to talk about the footie. It was a classic example of how football seeps into people's daily lives, and Scotland's World Cup campaign of 1978 provided another classic example, though in a negative rather than positive way.

The obituaries of MacLeod, in the English newspapers at least, rather glossed over the wider implications of Scotland's humiliation in Argentina, a humiliation which was greatly compounded by the manager's premature triumphalism.

He even gave his name to an ism. In Scotland, MacLeodism to this day means a kind of circumspection, paradoxically the very opposite of how the man himself operated. Moreover, I know some Scots who feel that the devolution vote of 1979 was influenced by what had happened in Cordoba the summer before.

Their argument goes that the boot of Teofilo Cubillas, the principal weapon in Scotland's devastating 3-1 defeat by Peru, so damaged Scottish pride, which was further eroded by the 1-1 draw with Iran and the Willie Johnston drugs affair, that the pro-devolution movement lost crucial momentum and the referendum was lost.

I can see how that adds up. Had the pre-World Cup euphoria in Scotland continued afterwards, had Scotland in effect done a 1990 Republic of Ireland, there seems little doubt that the required two-thirds majority would have been reached.

Whatever, the point is that Stokoe at the height of his fame unleashed a feel-good factor, and MacLeod a feel-sick factor. But the symmetry between the two goes further. For just as Stokoe never achieved anything as a manager to compare with Sunderland's FA Cup win, so MacLeod did not deserve his managerial record to be eclipsed by Scotland's failure in Argentina.

For one thing, he got them there, on the way beating Czechoslovakia, who were the European champions. For another thing, he was hugely successful at humble Ayr United. And, when he left Ayr for Aberdeen, he built the foundations upon which his successor, some obscure cove called Alex Ferguson, would add. The excellent Alex McLeish might have become Fergie's protégé and a vital contributor to Aberdeen's glory years, but it was MacLeod who signed him.

So there we are. Two very different football men, who died on the same day and whose faces are seared into the memories of those of us who come from the Seventies. I wonder whose faces will be seared into the memory of my son when, in 35 years' time, he thinks back to football around the turn of the 21st century, and whether it will startle him to think that he has reached the age his sad old dad was when he wandered round the house for a week muttering "Bloody hell, I'm the age Bob Stokoe was when Sunderland won the Cup"?

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