"THE LARCENOUS nature of death, its habit of breaking in on us when we are least prepared and stealing the irreplaceable, has seldom been more sickeningly experienced than at Ninian Park in Cardiff on Tuesday night."

The words of the greatest ever sportswriter bar none - Hugh McIlvanney. He penned these thoughts on September 15th, 1985 to commemorate the death of the greatest ever Celtic manager Jock Stein - arguably the most revered figure in Scottish football history.

A working-class miner from Burnbank in Lanarkshire, Stein was also a great friend of McIlvanney's. Thirty-six years ago today Stein, who was known affectionately as the 'Big Man' or 'Big Jock', died in Wales. He collapsed in the dugout as Scotland clinched a vital 1-1 draw against Wales to cement a play-off spot for the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

A draw would be enough to secure a play-off place for the World Cup finals against the winners from the Oceanic group - which turned out to be Australia. Scotland would go on to defeat the Aussies 2-0 over two legs to clinch a World Cup finals berth.

It was Rangers winger, and second-half substitute, Davie Cooper who netted a late penalty with nine minutes go after Mark Hughes had given Wales the lead. As the Scots celebrated a significant result on the park, what happened off it was to render the stalemate entirely meaningless. In the harrowing final moments of the match, the television cameras panned in to show a clearly distressed Stein being carried up the tunnel.

Stein, who led Celtic to European Cup glory in 1967 and won nine titles in a row from 1966 to 1974, was pronounced dead in the medical room from a heart attack at the age of 62 some half an hour later. It emerged afterwards that Stein had stopped taking prescribed medication for heart disease in order that his match preparations would not be disrupted by any side effects of the pills.

An emotional former Liverpool, Scotland and Rangers midfielder now Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness - who had kept a vigil outside the medical room door - broke the news to the assembled throng deep in the bowels of Cardiff City FC's ground. A grief-stricken and tearful Souness uttered two words that reverberated around the football world: "He's gone".

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In the illustrious history of Scottish football, there has never been a blacker day.

Peter Donald worked as an SFA assistant secretary for two decades before going on to become the Scottish Football League secretary in 1989. He recalls the fateful evening and a conversation he had with Stein while the two of them were alone in the dressing room prior to kick-off. It was a chat he would have cause to remember in the years that followed.

Donald said: "Jock Stein was certainly the most important man in Scottish football at that time and some would argue of all time. He was a towering presence in football in Scotland and in the United Kingdom because of what he had achieved with Celtic.

"When he came to the SFA he had a long experience of club football. He was a mature man then and he knew everyone and everything about the game. He was a huge asset to the SFA.

"I worked at the SFA at the time and part of my job was doing admin for the Scottish national team and I had daily contact with him. Most mornings he would come into my office on the way to his office at Park Gardens. We would have a blether and we would talk about plans for the future - mostly admin stuff.

"We were staying at a hotel in Bristol on the day of the Wales game. We all reported for breakfast before the drive across the Severn Bridge to Cardiff. In the morning I would have to say that he was just himself from what I witnessed.  The players had a light training session during the day and on the bus, for example, we had a video cassette with a sports quiz and that at the time was pretty advanced.

"Everybody was participating in the quiz and Jock was in good form. Pre-match I was in and out of the dressing room doing different things that I normally did.

"I remember clearly just before the game as everyone - players, physios had gone out of the dressing room - and I was left alone with Jock and that was the only time that he had mentioned to me about the pressure that was building up.

"It was the first time he had mentioned pressure in terms of the result. That was the first time I heard him talk about the pressure of the occasion. It was nothing more than that and off he went to the dugout and I took my place upstairs in the stand.

"Nobody knew what was to come but those words would come back to me after the tragedy happened."

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Ironically Donald was then prevented from doing his job by a rather officious security guard who refused to believe that he was part of the Scotland national team setup.

When the news finally broke that Stein had passed away there was a massive outpouring of grief.

Donald said: "In those days accreditation wasn't as advanced as it is nowadays. My norm after a Scotland game would be to go down to the dressing room and see if anything needed to be done - press arrangements - stuff like that.

"Jock's collapse had made security at the door into the dressing room area was restricted and they wouldn't let me in. I was saying that I was with the team and I had to get into the Scotland dressing room.

"I was on the outside waiting to get back in to do my job and because of the events and all the medical activity that was going in they rightly restricted access to the area. A man whose job it was to prevent anyone from getting beyond that point did it very well. 

"Everyone that was involved in this was absolutely shattered. There was not a person who was unaffected. My boss then was Ernie Walker and he was terribly affected and so too was Jimmy Steele, the masseur, who was a great Celtic stalwart and did the same job for Scotland. Jimmy was absolutely broken. It was a terrible night."

Donald also paints a vivid picture of a poignant image that brought the enormity of the tragedy home to him when the national team touched down at Edinburgh airport.

He said: "We flew back to Edinburgh, not to Glasgow as we usually did.

"At that time Ernie, David Will, who was the president of the SFA, and a man called Tony McGuinness who was Jock's pal and had been at the game and was also on the team flight travelled directly from the airport by car to see Jean Stein - Jock's wife.

"I can remember standing at the airport and everybody was picking up their bags. There was one bag left on the carousel and it was going round and round and, of course, it was Jock's.

"Everybody else had taken care of their own things and headed home. I had to pick up Jock's bag from the carousel."

Celtic Way:

Donald's abiding memories of Stein are spoken with genuine affection.

He said: "I just thought Jock was a very kind man to everybody involved in the association. He had a good relationship with them all.

"He was mischievous as well and he was a very shrewd man. As a football administrator, I was always careful not to say anything of a technical nature to someone like Jock. He knew football inside out.

"Whenever he worked with players at a training session, you could see that is where he was at his happiest and he enjoyed that element of the camaraderie within the team."

Rather fittingly in McIlvanney's tribute piece in The Observer he also said: "But there are many others in many places who felt last week that they did not have to go down a pit to know what real darkness was."

Donald concurs wholeheartedly with that sentiment.

"Who could ever forget a man like Jock Stein?" he added. "It was such a tragic event that happened a long time ago and the nation was put into a dark place.

"I just felt for his family and for everyone associated with Celtic. It was a tragic end to a wonderful career. He has been written into the folklore of Scottish football and always will be."

Bill Shankly famously said to Stein in the aftermath of the 1967 European Cup win: "John, you're immortal". He wasn't wrong.