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Chasing headlines in Spain

IN 1964, and completely out of the blue, Celtic attempted to sign a 36-year-old forward.

Alfredo di Stefano was offered £200-per-game to join Celtic but the Real Madrid striker had already agreed to join Espanyol.

He just happened to be the greatest player of his generation.

The approach for Alfredo di Stefano came four years after he had wowed Hampden with a hat trick in Real Madrid's legendary 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt. That remarkable match, which Sean Fallon had watched alongside Jock Stein, was the fifth successive European Cup final in which the Argentine had played, scored and emerged victorious.

Reserve centre-half John Cushley, who spoke Spanish, had been dispatched with Jimmy McGrory to Madrid, supposedly with the aim of bringing home a legend. But it was a plan with a significant flaw.

"Di Stefano had already gone to his holiday home in the north of Spain," said Cushley. "In the end, we had to track him down on the phone. Mr McGrory was telling me, 'Offer him this'. I couldn't believe the figures - it was more than the rest of us put together were getting. But in any case, Di Stefano said that he had already agreed a deal with Espanyol."

Normally thrifty to the point of notoriety, Celtic had promised the Argentinian £200-per-game, twice what the highest-paid player in Britain at the time, Johnny Haynes, was earning. Yet the fact they had arranged for three journalists to accompany McGrory and Cushley convinced Fallon that it was a trip geared more towards obtaining headlines than acquiring a star player.

'I always thought the Di Stefano thing was a publicity stunt. I would have loved nothing more if he'd said yes, because it would have been tremendous to have someone like that at Celtic. But the board knew there was no chance. If he had accepted their offer, they would have had a heart attack. There just wasn't money for a player like that floating around at the time. It was a story that got the fans excited but that wasn't a good time for the club and I felt it was put out there to relieve a bit of pressure.'

However, the audacity of the move for Di Stefano clearly left an impression on Fallon. Many years later, during his spell in charge of Dumbarton, he nearly pulled off what would have been one of the biggest signings in Scottish football history.

On December 9, 1980, the day the world awoke to the news that John Lennon had been shot dead outside his New York apartment, the reports on the Scottish back pages were every bit as shocking. Morning coffees across the country would have been spat out at the mere headline: 'Sons in for Cruyff.'

It is a story that Gerry McNee remembers only too well. "I was with the [Scottish Daily] Express at the time and I got a call, very close to the first edition deadline, from a contact I trusted. 'Dumbarton are trying to sign Cruyff', he told me. But when I got in touch with the Express to tell them to hold the back page, I had a hell of a job trying to convince them that it wasn't an April fool.

"I remember phoning Sean during a reserve match at Boghead to confirm the story with him and, typically of Sean, he was up front about it. 'Yes, we've spoken to the boy,' were his famous words. It was a massive story."

Massive, and almost too outlandish to believe. Johan Cruyff, a record three-time Ballon d'Or winner and the graceful, elegant personification of 'total football', had been the great player of the 1970s. Dumbarton were a club mired in mid-table mediocrity in Scotland's second tier. Why on earth would this superstar, at 33 and still with life in those legendary legs, consider playing his football at Boghead? Had Fallon, having worked for so long with a master in media manipulation, and remembering the coverage generated by Celtic's pursuit of Di Stefano, simply employed an old headline-grabbing trick?

'There was a bit of that involved. I knew it was always unlikely we would get Cruyff, but the way I saw it we couldn't lose. At worst, it got Dumbarton on the back pages for a few days and boosted the club's image and profile, which was very low at that time. At best, if we were really lucky, we might get a magnificent player. Cruyff was struggling a bit financially in those days because he'd lost all his money in a bad investment, so we felt offering him a few thousand pounds per game might tempt him. If you don't try, you'll never know. And he did agree to meet us. I went over with the chairman to Amsterdam and found him to be very polite and knowledgeable about the whole Scottish scene. But although I was normally quite good at talking players into signing, that one I couldn't manage. I set things buzzing though, didn't I? And I think I was closer to making it happen than some people think.'

Confirmation of just how close arrived, remarkably enough, from Cruyff himself. While visiting Scotland for a pro-am golf tournament in 2012, the former Ajax and Barcelona star - though slightly taken aback by the question - well remembered Dumbarton's unexpected approach.

"Was I tempted? Yes, of course," he said. "Playing in England, or Britain, was something I had always wanted to do. But I thought I was too old at that stage to go to Scotland, where you know the weather will be difficult. When you're old your muscles get stiff, and moving to a cold country is asking for problems."

Sean Fallon: Celtic's Iron Man' by Stephen Sullivan is available in hardback and ebook

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