East End boys set Stein on his way

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Scottish Cup weekends are always a time for delving back into the past, and embracing the stories that continue to spill from the ancient trophy. This is what they were doing beneath a marquee last night at Dunfermline Athletic’s East End Park where, by the centre circle, a group of noble gentlemen were stealing the scene, just as they did 40 years ago, when Jock Stein masterminded his first and, in Fife anyway, most enduring managerial success.

The Lisbon Lions don’t have much truck down the Halbeath Road. Instead it is Stein’s side of 1961, the likes of Willie Cunningham and Harry Melrose, who find themselves cast as heroes, the winners of the 76th Scottish Cup final in their club’s 76th year. Last night the members of this great side were the guests of honour at the club’s annual sportsman’s dinner.

Cunningham and Melrose, both who went onto enjoy spells as manager at East End Park, still live in the town, and have become used to being grabbed by the arm in grog houses, and asked to recall, just one more time, a campaign that started in Berwick, and ended up in glory against Celtic.

Melrose, whose deflected free kick in the semi-final against St Mirren sealed a place in the final, likens the team of that day to the Celtic side who heaved their way into history in Portugal in 1967. "The Celtic team that won the European Cup keep saying how they were all born within a few miles of each other, but we were similar," he says. "Apart from George Miller, who was from Larkhall, the rest of us were from Falkirk, Stirling, Larbert, Edinburgh and Dunfermline."

There was though one other, a softly spoken chap from outside Belfast, whose fate it was to land in Bishopton aged nine, while his father gained employment in a munitions factory during the Second World War. Cunningham eventually made his way to Dunfermline, via St Mirren and Leicester City, and has remained there ever since.

A fine side was congregating in Dunfermline, a team that, as Cunningham says, "would put any town on the map". However, it might have been different.

A season earlier the team avoided relegation to the Second Division only through winning their last five games, and a year before that a solitary point separated them from the drop.

Melrose believes that had they been demoted on either occasion the great European nights of the Sixties, such as against Everton and Valencia, would never have happened, with trips to Stranraer as swinging as this decade might ever have got for East End Park acolytes. What scenes would have been missed, starting 40 years ago at Hampden Park, in two games of Dunfermline’s century, in a pair of matches of keeper Eddie Connachan’s life.

"We were all so tired," remembers Melrose. "But Eddie just didn’t look like he was going to be beaten. Funny thing was, he repeated it in the replay."

The first game having ended 0-0, the teams met again on the Wednesday, in a game that kicked off in early evening due to the lack of floodlights at Hampden. Not that this prevented more than 80,000 filing back into the stadium, bringing the aggregate attendance past the 200,000 mark. David Thomson and Charlie Dickson were the scorers that brought the Scottish Cup to Dunfermline for the first time. By the time the victorious team had made it back to Fife, it was way after midnight, something which could only have added to the magic of the occasion.

Emerging from the dark came the open-decked bus, carrying a precious cargo of players and trophy. The scene which met the passengers was no less surreal. "We came into the town, and all these old wee dearies were standing outside their houses in their curlers," remembers Cunningham.

It was quite a night. The players were finally deposited at the town hall, where they were introduced to the crowd. As if the fans didn’t know their names already. Cammy Fraser, the youngest player in the side, took control of the microphone. "This is the proudest moment of my life," he exclaimed, with a flourish of his arms, and a swelling of his breast. Fraser is immortalised, and not just for the part he played in the club’s first Scottish Cup success. Sold the following season to Aston Villa, the transfer fee funded the main stand that still remains.

Others from the era have a presence that has been as lasting, not least Stein. Fittingly, he had been at East End Park just a week before he collapsed during Scotland’s World Cup qualifier with Wales in Cardiff in 1985, helping celebrate the club’s centenary.

Melrose had never heard of Stein when he arrived at the club in 1960, from the anonymity of reserve team coach at Celtic. "He was not really threatening," remembers Melrose. "He never swore, and he wasn’t a drinker. He was a clean living man for a miner, but he was also a very commanding fellow. He had a big, barrel chest, and he took up the whole doorway when he walked in. He knew what he was talking about and it rubbed off."

Cunningham had the unenviable task of following Stein, something which can only be likened to the poor fellow who must step into Sir Alex Ferguson’s shoes at Manchester United at the end of next season. Incredibly Cunningham came close to landing the double in his first season in charge, with Dunfermline missing out on the championship by a single point, before being beaten by Celtic in the Scottish Cup final.

The decade, then, had its share of anguish too, but the antidote was often close at hand, and three years later the Scottish Cup was lifted once again.

This victory didn’t mark the end of a great era, just as it is crude to suggest 1961 signalled the dawn, but those cup wins were the bookends to a time when anything and everything seemed possible down the Halbeath Road.

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