“No-one knew more about football than Jimmy Gribben. He was my friend and advisor,” Jock Stein

“No-one knew more about football than Jimmy Gribben. He was my friend and advisor.”

In the first part of this article, we looked at events as they unfolded in the autumn then winter of 1951, culminating in the arrival at Celtic Park on 4 December 1951 of a largely unheralded 29-year-old centre-half from Welsh Non-League outfit Llanelli (known until 1966 by its anglicised spelling of Llanelly), a certain John Stein.

The story continues as we honour the man responsible for suggesting Celts take a chance on the former Albion Rovers defender, and thus for changing the course of both Jock’s life and the club’s history forever. That man was Jimmy Gribben, although as we will see the spelling of his surname varies over the years, with Gribbin, Gribbon and even Gribbion appearing in official records, together with a football medal engraved as Gribban!

I am indebted to the legendary Celtic author and historian Pat Woods for providing several newspaper articles and book extracts which give a first-hand account of Jock’s respect for that same man, many years after he first arrived at Parkhead as a player.  The untold Jimmy Gribben story will be featured daily on The Celtic Star over the next week or so and what an incredible story it is.

So how did that all come about and just who was Jimmy Gribben?

Former Hearts and Scotland goalkeeper, Jack Harkness, writing his regular weekly page in The Sunday Post of 16 May 1965, provided some context to the origins of the crucial decision which brought Jock Stein to Celtic. His article, shown in its entirety below, was headed…

14 Years of Non-Stop Success

“For the past five years, the honours of football have been cascading about the shoulders of Jock Stein. Dunfermline’s Scottish Cup triumph. Hibs’ Summer Cup triumph. Celtic’s Scottish Cup triumph. Now – Scotland’s international team manager.

Yet, if it hadn’t been for a quirk of fate 14 years ago, the chances are that Jock Stein would be an unknown name to 99 per cent of football followers. Back in 1951, Celtic’s directors held what was to prove a fateful board meeting at Parkhead. More and more young players were being added to the Celtic staff. The question of coaching cropped up.

Mr Bob Kelly, the club chairman, said bluntly, “I’d prefer a coach ON the field to one OFF the field.” In other words, where young players were concerned, he’d rather have the coaching practical than technical. So the decision was made to search for a suitable player who would be utilised as centre-half in the reserve team, coaching and advising young players DURING the actual game.

The idea was born and decided on before they got around to sorting out “the suitable player” for such a job. When it came to names, several were mentioned – including Stein, who was then playing with Welsh club Llanelly.

From his family connections in Blantyre, Mr Kelly had no hesitation in recommending Jock as being the right type for the job. Jimmy Gribben, the assistant trainer, had seen Jock in action for Albion Rovers on several occasions before he went to Wales. He vouched for Stein’s knowledge of the game and personal ability.

And manager Jimmy McGrory’s mind went back to a Celtic v Albion Rovers Scottish Cup tie the previous year, when Celtic scraped through 4-3, mainly because Stein refused to acknowledge defeat and kept bouncing his team back into the game.”

I can find no trace of such a Scottish Cup-tie. Jock played for Albion Rovers against Celtic twice in League Division A matches in season 1948/49, his side coming back from 3-1 down late on to secure a 3-3 draw at Cliftonhill in September 1948, one of only eight points collected in what was their last top-flight campaign to this day.

I am assuming this may have been the match Jimmy McGrory alluded to, if indeed he made any such comment, although later in this article a former Albion Rovers teammate Adam McLean suggests that Jock impressed hugely in the return fixture at Celtic Park in January 1949, which saw the Hoops win 3-0, and a reserve match between the teams where he marginalised John McPhail. The clubs did not meet at all the following season, 1949/50.

Indeed, later the next year, Jock was starring for Southern League Llanelly in the English FA Cup. On Monday, 4 December 1950 – exactly 12 months before he signed for Celtic – he was part of the Llanelly side which only succumbed to Bristol Rovers after a second replay at, of all places, Ninian Park, Cardiff, a venue associated with Jock for the saddest of reasons 35 years later.

As an aside, Third Division Bristol Rovers would then go all the way to the FA Cup quarter-final for the first time in their history in the spring of 1951, only being beaten in a replay by eventual winners Newcastle United. The Geordies would retain the trophy the following year, by which time their goalkeeper was a young Glaswegian by the name of Ronnie Simpson, who would later play under Jock Stein at both Hibernian and Celtic with very different outcomes. Isn’t football wonderful sometimes in the variety of stories and connections it throws up?

Anyway, back to the Jack Harkness article.

“This bit of boardroom planning was naturally unknown to the Celtic fans. When the bald announcement was made that Stein had been signed, there were remarks like, “Blimey – even Albion Rovers let him go!”

But hardly had Jock been signed as a second team coach than fate played yet another vital part in his career. Alec Boden was injured, Jock was promoted to the first team in the emergency, and he stayed there till Celtic walked off Hampden with the Scottish Cup in 1954.

That boardroom meeting ‘way back in December 1951 was a vital one for Celtic. It was even more vital for Jock Stein – it took him from obscurity to become, within 14 years, the biggest name in Scottish football.”

Some three weeks earlier, on Monday, 26 April 1965, The Scottish Daily Express displayed a photo of Jimmy Gribben carrying the Scottish Cup inside Glasgow’s Central Hotel, with the following captions and text.

The Cup goes back to Parkhead – Celtic’s Day of Glory

“Thousands shared the joy of victory…but it is a special moment for 77-year-old Jimmy Gribben as he carries the Scottish Cup…won by Celtic on Saturday for the 18th time. Jimmy was assistant trainer when the club last won the cup in 1954.”

Jimmy and Jock with the Scottish Cup in Glasgow’s Central Hotel in April 1965

As an aside, my research would suggest that Jimmy was only 69 at the time this photo was taken in April 1965, rather than 77.

Jock had made a point of handing the trophy to Jimmy when the team arrived back at the hotel following their triumphant journey from Hampden, and 24 hours earlier, The Scottish Sunday Express had also picked up on his touching gesture. They led with a photo of Jimmy and the cup, flanked by Bob Rooney and Jock on the hotel staircase, and an article which included the following comment.

“Outside the Central Hotel, traffic was brought to a standstill when the team appeared at a window with the Scottish Cup. Fans ran from public houses to raise glasses to the triumphant team. At one stage, someone pulled open the emergency exit door of the second bus where Jock Stein was sitting…and it was closed quickly by police.

Inside the Central Hotel, the honour of carrying the trophy was given to Celtic’s grand old man, Jimmy Gribben, who has been on the staff for more than 20 years.”

Jimmy and Jock with the European Cup as the team arrive home from Lisbon in May 1967

Jock would pay tribute to his old friend many times in the future, with perhaps the highlight being in the aftermath of Lisbon, the club’s greatest hour. This is an article from The Scottish Daily Express of Saturday, 27 May 1967, two days after that European triumph, penned by Jack Webster. It sums up the special relationship between the two men quite beautifully.

“From Portugal to Paradise, they came last night to spark off the greatest moment in the history of Scottish football. It was the moment when the multitude waved their banners in a mood of joy unconfined, when they danced gaily on to the field and roared themselves hoarsely into throat disorders.

For this was the return of The Magnificents – the Celtic heroes who had gone with hope in their hearts to the shores of Lisbon and had come back the Champions of Europe. It was the moment when you write “This was their finest hour” and proceed to curse the inadequacy of words.

For the carnival scene at Celtic Park, with 60,000 ecstatic people opening their hearts in a fashion unparalleled, was only one half of the story. At 7.20 p.m. came the buzz of anticipation. Then came the bus – and the roar. Meanwhile, inside the ground, the crowd was warming to a crescendo.

They sensed that the great appearance was near and up went the chants: “Tommy Gemmell” and “Jock Stein” and finally the full-blooded call of “Celtic! Celtic! That’s the team for me; Celtic! Celtic! On to Victory.”

To victory it was – the victory of the long, hard road to success in the toughest sector of world football, the battleground of Europe. Out they came to a thunder of noise, Jock Stein, Tommy Gemmell, Billy McNeill and all, resplendent in their green blazers and light flannels.

In many ways, this was the moment of glory. The game itself had been the perfect dream which carried the dread of wakening up. Twenty-four hours later the disbelief could last no longer. The only problem left was that of absorbing and savouring an historic event in a way that it would be engraved in our minds and hearts for ever.

Such fleeting moments are hard to catch. But there, as I stood in that cauldron of happiness, another thought struck me. Nearby was Mr. Bob Kelly, the Celtic chairman whose father was the first captain of the club in 1888. It is not so long ago, and my mind went back to the Marist priest who started it all as a charity for the poor of the district, the Irish who had come to seek a living in a strange land.

Many there last night were descendants of those same poor people in Glasgow’s East End. Whatever their economic condition today, they were enviably rich in the commodity of football talent. But, for me, the most poignant moment of all took place inside the main hall of Celtic Park, away from the public gaze. As the playful Celts stormed into the pavilion, they were greeted by a horde of friends and admirers before going out to the public appearance.

Quietly in a corner stood an old man who surveyed it all wistfully. I noticed him and wished that Jock Stein would too. With that sure instinct, he did. Stein rushed towards him, took him in his arms and hugged. And therein lies the dramatic story not just of Celtic F.C. but of Stein himself.

For the man with the glistening eyes was Jimmy Gribben, a faithful employee of the club who suggested to the directors, during a team emergency in 1951, that they should consider that fellow who had gone from the obscurity of Albion Rovers to the greater obscurity of Llanelly, in Wales.

Stein, then nearing 30, thought his [playing]days were over. But he came back to help out Celtic, to lead them to new triumphs, as their captain, and later to return as the boss.

It might never have happened but for Jimmy Gribben. That was the beginning, and this was the climax. And what a wonderful thing that Gribben should be there last night to share in the glory and that the great-hearted Stein, hard on the outside but soft and considerate at the core, should remember him with the bear-like hug.

This was the pay-off to a perfect night.”


Hail Hail!

Matt Corr

With grateful thanks to Pat Woods, Tom Campbell, Manus Gallagher, Ken Ross, Nikki Guthrie, Elaine Currie, Margaret Gribbon, John Gribbon, John Tracey, Philomena Tracey and the wider Gribbon family.

Follow Matt on Twitter/X @Boola_vogue

Matt Corr’s three Celtic books are available in hardback from Celtic Star Books and also on Kindle via Amazon. The books are currently HALF PRICE at our boostore: celticstarbooks.com/shop

About Author

Having retired from his day job Matt Corr can usually be found working as a Tour Guide at Celtic Park, or if there is a Marathon on anywhere in the world from as far away as Tokyo or New York, Matt will be running for the Celtic Foundation. On a European away-day, he's there writing his Diary for The Celtic Star and he's currently completing his first Celtic book with another two planned.

1 Comment

  1. Jimmy Gribben lived not far from me in Baillieston. He was a near neighbour of a good friend of mine – Peter Dickson (who many years later scored against Celtic for QOS in a Scottish Cup Tie}
    Jimmy Gribben would often have a blether with Peter’s dad as he was coming past the house. He gave Peter and me a couple of SFA Badges (I think they were for War Time Internationals) which we got our mothers to sew on to our football shirts