BY ALAN TEMPLE – Capital City Press
Dunfermline icon Jim Leishman insists the tragic manner of Jock Stein’s death in Wales was central to Vinnie Jones’ decision to take part in tomorrow afternoon’s charity fixture.
A Pars Legends XI will face their Celtic counter-parts at East End Park to celebrate the life of Stein and mark 30 years since his death following a heart attack at Cardiff’s Ninian Park in September 1985.
The harrowing scenes unfolded at full-time of Scotland’s fraught 1-1 draw against their hosts, with a contentious Davie Cooper penalty kick allowing Stein’s side to progress to the next stage of qualifying for the 1986 World Cup. He was 62.
His sudden passing represented one of the darkest days in Scottish football history – but also made an indelible impact on the people of Wales.
As a consequence Jones – who, despite being born in Watford, won nine caps for Wales – had no hesitation in signing up for the encounter; swapping the Hollywood hills for Halbeath Road.
“Vinnie played for Wales and that was one of the reasons he wanted to come up,” explained Leishman. “Because Mr Stein died in Cardiff he wanted to be a part of it and pay tribute. And at his own expense as well.
“I don’t know how long he is going to play but he’ll be there and that’s really kind of him. Who doesn’t know Vinnie Jones in the football world and beyond?”
Leishman, the Provost of Fife and honorary director at Dunfermline, recalls the anxiousness throughout the nation during that fateful fixture, which saw a Cooper penalty cancel out Mark Hughes’ opening goal following a widely-disputed handball by David Phillips.
However, Scottish celebrations were cut cruelly short as news of Stein’s collapse and subsequent passing in the stadium’s medical room spread.
“A lot of people remember that night because it was such an important game,” continued Leishman. “I watched the game on the TV that night and I remember the atmosphere.
“It was so tense. There was controversy with the handball and the penalty of course. I just remember, as a football person, how important it was to get through that game.
“Unfortunately in all that tension Mr Stein lost his life. It was cut short too quickly.”
After a moment, he adds: “If the man had wanted to pass away, that would have been where he would have wanted to think his last thoughts and dream his last dream. That’s a football player’s wish.”
Jones and fellow silver screen star, James McAvoy, add some glamour to an impressive roll-call of participants who have agreed to be part of the fixture in Fife.
Former Manchester United boss David Moyes, now in charge of Real Sociedad, will be in the dugout for Dunfermline, while Celtic’s side includes Neil Lennon, Chris Sutton and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink.
However, Leishman is most excited by the reunion of Dunfermline’s own Crazy Gang.
Massive characters from the club’s past such as Marco Ruitenbeek, Istvan Kostma, Andrius Skerla and Scott ‘Nipper’ Thomson will be donning the black-and-white once more.
“I haven’t seen a lot of the players for ages,” continued Leishman. “Guys like Andrius Skerla and Istvan Kozma – an icon here, with 60 games for Hungary. Skerla played over 70 times for Lithuania and when I took over as manager he was terrific.
“The fans will love them. But you’ve also got Barry Nicholson coming back, he was a great player here before he went to Aberdeen. There’s Derek Stillie, Marco Ruitenbeek, who the fans loved, Andy Tod and Hamish French, who were great club players.
“When I do see these guys, it’s wonderful, no matter what era. I can’t wait to meet the 1961 [Scottish Cup winners] guys again as well who are able to make it, they have some great stories to tell – and the Lisbon Lions as well.”
While Stein’s successes at Celtic, most notably becoming the first British side to lift the European Cup in 1967, are part of Scottish football folklore, he remains a legend at East End Park.
Having initially saved the club from relegation following his arrival in 1960, he went on to guide them to the Scottish Cup in 1961 and guided the Pars into Europe with distinction.
And Leishman hopes it proves to be a fitting occasion as both clubs come together to mark the 30th anniversary of his loss.
“After the cup win, I have seen the footage of the bus coming through town and Mr Stein being interviewed by the provost of Dunfermline on the balcony of the City Chambers,” he added. “The noise on the tape was unbelievable. It was such an emotional time.
“He left an incredible legacy wherever he went.”