Twenty-three years ago today, Scotland secured a momentous result that should have sparked an outpouring of joy. Instead, the events at Cardiff's Ninian Park precipitated an unprecedented period of national mourning.
For the previous two decades, as Scotland's clubs conquered Europe and its national team reached the first of five successive FIFA World Cups™, Jock Stein had come to symbolise everything that enabled this small country to consistently punch above its weight. Certainly, by winning the European Cup in 1967 with a team comprised entirely of players born within a 30-mile radius of Celtic Park - just one of many personal triumphs - this former miner had shown his fellow countrymen that absolutely anything was possible.
Yet it was the stresses and strains of the beautiful game that, on that chilly night in Cardiff, were to deal another blow to the famous assertion about life, death and football by Stein's close friend, Bill Shankly.
10 September 1985, Ninian Park, Cardiff
Wales 1-1 Scotland
Scorers: Wales (Hughes 13); Scotland (Cooper 81 pen)
Wales: Southall, Jones, Van den Hauwe, Ratcliffe, Jackett, James (Lovell 80), Phillips, Nicholas, Thomas (Blackmore 83), Rush, Hughes
Scotland: Leighton (Rough 46), Gough, Malpas, Aitken, McLeish, Miller, Nicol, Strachan (Cooper 61), Sharp, Bett, Speedie
By 1985, Scotland had become almost blasé about reaching the FIFA World Cup finals. The Tartan Army had, after all, marched to the global showpiece in 1974, 1978 and 1982, when Stein's team came within goal difference of advancing to the latter stages at the Soviet Union's expense.
However, the Scots arrived in Cardiff on the brink of elimination. Ian Rush's solitary, match-winning goal in the corresponding fixture at Hampden meant that Wales stood within two points of securing second spot behind Spain, and a place in a UEFA/OFC play-off. Shorn of stars such as Kenny Dalglish, Steve Archibald, Alan Hansen and his captain, Graeme Souness, Stein knew that his side went into the match as clear underdogs.
Sir Alex Ferguson, Stein's then assistant, recalls noting the strain visibly etched on his mentor's face as kick-off approached. There was to be further fraying of nerves when, with just 13 minutes played, Wales' early dominance was rewarded in the form of a clinically-taken goal from a future protégé of Ferguson's, Mark Hughes.
The situation hardly improved at half-time when goalkeeper Jim Leighton, who had performed hesitantly in the first half, dropped the bombshell that he had lost a contact lens during the action and had no replacement. Nevertheless, while the enforced introduction of Alan Rough restricted his tactical options, Stein's words roused Scotland to a fightback that quickly had their hosts on the defensive. With an hour gone, he also took the bold decision of replacing Gordon Strachan with Davie Cooper, entrusting the talented but unpredictable Rangers winger with unlocking a resolute Welsh defence.
Ultimately, it was from the penalty spot that Cooper was given the chance to justify his manager's faith, and though the tension was palpable, he coolly slotted his kick low to Neville Southall's left to haul Scotland level with nine minutes remaining. As the final, fateful seconds ticked down, Stein was seen to remonstrate angrily with photographers who had surrounded his dugout in anticipation of the full-time celebrations. Then, mistakenly thinking the referee had brought proceedings to an end, he clambered to his feet to shake the hand of his Welsh counterpart and suffered a massive heart attack. Within minutes, one of Scotland's greatest heroes had been pronounced dead in the Ninian Park treatment room.
Cooper's composure may have set Scotland en route to Mexico but for the umpteenth and final time, Scotland's star was the man who introduced him to the fray. Dedication to his job had ensured that, on the day he died, Stein opted not to take the diuretics he had been prescribed for his heart problems, as he felt they prevented him carrying out his full duties. The Scotland manager and his loved ones were to pay the heaviest of prices for his devotion.
"It's not a night I want to remember. I had thought at the time that he wasn't at his bubbly best. He wasn't as sparky as usual at the dinner table. He was still able to make big decisions, though. He started out making great decisions and he went out with a great decision - taking me off! We were 1-0 down and the man he replaced me with went on to score the equaliser... Some say people worshipped big Jock, but it's better than that. People loved him," Gordon Strachan, Celtic manager and former Scotland midfielder.
"I didn't shed a tear until I had flown from Cardiff to Glasgow and set out on the drive to Aberdeen. On the way up, I pulled into a lay-by and just broke down... For people like myself, Jock was the precursor of all the deeds and challenges we needed to aim at. He would never take the praise himself. It was always about the players and how great the team were. That magnanimity tells you everything about him. For any man seeking to further his education in football, Jock Stein was a one-man university," Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager and Jock Stein's then assistant.
What happened next...
A band of 12,000 Scottish fans had travelled to Cardiff and, as news spread and Ferguson broke the news to a disconsolate dressing room, these same fans stood silently, disbelievingly, outside the doors of Ninian Park. One supporter, interviewed on television, summed up the prevailing emotion. "We'd rather be out of the World Cup and have big Jock back," he said quietly to the camera. Yet Scotland did go on to Mexico, Ferguson leading the team to a 2-0 play-off win over Australia before stumbling at a familiar first-round hurdle in the finals. Back in Glasgow, thousands lined the streets to bid a fond, tearful farewell to a national icon and bona fide legend whose name and remarkable deeds will live on forever.