That afternoon, only a year on from departing his beloved Hibernian following 14 years and almost 400 league appearances, Stanton stood proudly in his Celtic colours – controversially sporting a badge for the first time competitively – as a title winner at last.
He did so as acknowledgement of his pivotal efforts during a debut season that underpinned the Glasgow club’s first championship in three years. Stanton, playing as a sweeper, had been a revelation as Celtic also won the Scottish Cup.
As is tradition, the league flag was unfurled on the opening day of the new season, with Jean Stein, wife of Celtic manager Jock, performing the honour. Little more than an hour later, the 32-year-old Stanton’s football career had the curtain yanked down on it, the injury sustained against Dundee United marking the beginning of the end.
“Early on, I started feeling wee things I hadn’t felt before that led me to think things weren’t as smooth as they should be. I had a tackle with Paul Sturrock and my knee was sticking a wee bit. That was it. I waved over to the dugout and [physio] Bob Rooney had a look at it. I came back out for the second half but I couldn’t risk it for the team. I limped off and that was it. That was it.”
Stanton never played a competitive senior game again. Stein never won another honour. The legendary manager was replaced by Billy McNeill at the end of the 1977-78 season in which Celtic, favourites to retain their crown, could only finish fifth. The placing meant that for the first time in 18 years they failed to qualify for Europe, an arena in which they had, of course, excelled under the stewardship of Stein. So often a figure that seemed imbued by magical powers across 13 trophy-laden seasons, in his final campaign that witnessed the club’s lowest league finish since 1964-65, he and Celtic seemed bedevilled.
Stanton’s predicament, wherein complications developed after a cartilage operation as he was hospitalised with hepatitis, symbolised the crumbling of the Stein empire. It made for a season that could not have been more acutely removed from what proved his one and only playing for the club.
Before Stanton was lost in that opening game stalemate against United, Alfie Conn, another architect of the previous season’s double, was removed on a stretcher. Dalglish had signed for Liverpool in a £440,000 British record transfer days earlier, and by October Danny McGrain was lost to an ankle problem that would sideline him for a year.
“Just as everything had gone right all at once the previous season, so everything just seemed to go wrong at once,” said the ceaselessly affable Stanton.
“If you were looking at the players you really wouldn’t want to be losing from the team, Kenny, Danny, and Alfie would have been the ones.”
As would Stanton have been, after a profound impact at Celtic that meant his removal from the side proved every bit as destructive in Stein’s last season as the departure of Dalglish.
Indeed, with the Scottish Cup won courtesy of a final defeat of Rangers only months before, the cup-tied Stanton’s absence from Celtic’s League Cup run in season 1976-77 is cited as all that probably stood between the club and a treble. The second knockout trophy was claimed by Aberdeen who beat Stein’s team in the Hampden decider after extra time.
Stanton is proud that across his 44 games for “the Celtic” – as he often calls then – he only lost four times. And he is a tad rueful over missing the Parkhead club’s League Cup run. “I was cup-tied because I was brought on as a substitute as Hibs were on their way to beating St Johnstone 9-2 in a League Cup sectional game. I don’t know why I was put on.”
Stanton’s only appearance for the Easter Road first team that season came four days before he signed for Celtic on 1 September 1976. The transfer unfolded after a phone call from his manager Eddie Turnbull. Hibs may be his club but that did not make it a wrench to cut his ties professionally. “I was preparing for a reserve game that night when Eddie called. I knew something was up right away. He said ‘I’ve Mr Stein here to talk to you’. Jock came on and simple said: ‘How would you like to come and play for Celtic?’ He knew my answer. I wasn’t playing for Hibs at the time and me and Eddie weren’t seeing eye-to-eye.
“I wanted to drop back to defence because in my 30s midfield was becoming a hard shift for me. Eddie wouldn’t hear tell of it. The irony was that only when Jock was at Hibs [as manager from 1964-65] did I play at the back, with the club for some reason seeing me as a midfielder. I couldn’t believe that not only did Jock want me, but he wanted me to play where I thought I should be playing. All he said to me when I signed was; ‘we are losing silly goals, and I’ve brought you here to stop that’.”
As a cultured sweeper and almost clairvoyant reader of the game, Stanton did everything that was asked of him. The symmetry of Stein’s influence on his career at either end could also be considered in reverse. Stanton witnessed the early sure-footed certainties and visionary methods of Stein as a young manager. In then attempting his rehabilitation, he was around at Celtic as the title winners disintegrated and the fates mocked the mastery of the aged Stein. The waning of the great manager’s powers is often attributed to the near-fatal car crash that meant assistant Sean Fallon had to take charge for the trophyless 1975-76 season. Stanton believes that is too simplistic a theory.
“What happened to Jock would have affected anyone and, like everyone, time moved on for him, and changed him. I was going to say people mellow, but I have to say I didn’t notice very much of that. To me, he was still as sharp as ever, as committed as ever. It just seemed to be that it was a period for Celtic to struggle, as all the biggest clubs sometimes must. But even then I liked the way that, even in the bad times, there was a togetherness at Celtic. I thought Hibs were a big club, and they were and are, but Celtic are something else again. I just loved that everyone from the woman that made the tea to the fella that cut the grass were all supporters of the team. That was the Celtic.”
So much delight does Stanton take in his swansong with “the Celtic”, he does not feel cheated that he didn’t get the “two or three years” playing in defence that he felt was within him. He was part of the squad with which McNeill started to prepare for the 1978-79 season, but not for long. “I played a few pre-season friendlies, but things weren’t happening as quickly with my body as they should have been. I didn’t want to kid myself, or anyone else, on. I went to see Billy and said I had decided to give up.
“The gentleman that he was, he offered me time to think about it. But I didn’t need time. There was no great annoyance because I felt so lucky to have achieved what I did in my short time there.”
It just had to be that Celtic would win the 1977 title at Easter Road, which would mean Stanton taking the acclaim of a support that wasn’t the one with which the 16-time capped Scotland international will have an everlasting affinity. He admits there was a slight disconnect, one which hasn’t been preserved for posterity by television because Hibs chairman Tom Hart would not allow the cameras in. It has been speculated it was down to Hart being hacked off that Celtic had stolen Stanton from his club. The man himself chuckles at that conspiracy theory.
“I did think, when I was walking round in the post-match celebrations, that if someone had told me at the end of the previous season I could be a title winner with Celtic at Easter Road 11 months later, I would have said they were dreaming. Sometimes, though, dreams come true.”
The dream period seemed to continue into the start of the following season. For pre-season, Celtic headed to the Far East – an unsettled Dalglish refusing to attend because he said was tired after a Scotland summer trip – and won a tournament that involved them beating Arsenal and Red Star Belgrade. A game against the latter brought that almost unheard of sanction for the placid, gentle Stanton: a red card for retaliation.
“I remember sitting in the dressing room and Jock came in and said; ‘Long way to come to get sent off.’ I lashed out at a guy after he had thumped me in the penalty box and, though Jock wasn’t a man to answer back to, I said: ‘what would you have done boss?’ He and I knew fine well what he would have done.”
Eight months later, the pair again had another simple, quiet exchange that remains imprinted on the mind of Stanton. It came on 30 April 1978, as Celtic provided the opposition for Stanton’s testimonial wherein, despite still being a signed Celtic player, he played for the Hibs, naturally. It turned out to be the last Celtic game Stein took charge of before he was replaced.
An afternoon that brought guest appearances for Celtic from Lisbon Lions Tommy Gemmell and Jimmy Johnstone – “aye, the wee right-sided winger wasn’t half bad,” said Stanton – the joker that was Gemmell conducted the Celtic support in chanting his name, before whipping off his hooped shirt to reveal a Hibs shirt before getting the home crowd to big him up.
“He was the sort of character who could get away with everything, and anything,” recalls Stanton. “I remember big Joe Jordan playing hard for the Hibs and scoring. I think we forgot to pay him but he didn’t seem to mind. He just liked getting stuck in wherever he got the chance to play.”
A huge success of a benefit game, Stanton had earlier been concerned that a lashing wet day would dampen any enthusiasm from supporters for coming to honour him. It didn’t, with an astonishing crowd close to 40,000 turning up.
“I was standing in the tunnel with Jock, looking at the miserable weather on a day there was certainly no sunshine on Leith, and said to him it didn’t look good. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘they are coming’, which the Celtic support did in their absolute droves.”
Just as Stanton had come through for them, and Stein.