In the summer of 1998 I was charged with the task of identifying a suitable candidate to be Head Coach at Celtic. On that mission I found myself travelling to Vienna to meet for the first time a man who had been highly recommended by several reputable people, including the late Gerard Houllier.
Houllier was one of the many fine people I have been lucky enough to meet in my long career spanning law, business, education and sport. He told me that when French football didn’t seem to be capitalising on its outstanding individual players from the 1970s into the 1980s he sought out Jozef Venglos and based the revitalisation of his country’s fortunes on what had been done by Jozef initially in the old Czechoslavakia.
Jozef drove from his home in Bratislava to meet me in Vienna. We talked for several hours and it became clear that I was in the presence of someone truly great. He was vastly knowledgeable, insightful and compassionate – and wonderfully gracious. While he had an amazing grasp of the Celtic playing squad he grilled me about the club, especially with regard to its vision and ethics.
I returned to Glasgow and recommended to Fergus McCann that we had found our man.
He duly arrived and received the “welcome” from the Scottish media of those times which I had fortunately alerted him to expect. He was subjected to cruel observations about his age and his allegedly broken English. The fact that he was presented to the media by Fergus and me, both of whom who had been relentlessly battered over many months – and, in Fergus’s case, years – didn’t help. Nor did the fact that there had been no leak about his identity in advance.
He was courteous and patient – and totally untroubled. On one occasion I suggested to the media that if they were concerned about his command of English (which was actually excellent), they could talk to him in one of theother seven languages he spoke fluently.
In the boardroom at the Slovakia v Portugal match I watched him speak Slovakian to the hosts, English to me, Portuguese to the visiting delegation (he had coached Sporting Lisbon), Russian to the match officials and Polish to the UEFA delegate, switching effortlessly as required. He introduced me to everyone, and because I was with him I was welcomed warmly.
He had all the best attributes (and none of the defects) which define a person. There are too many to list; but let me identify some: honesty; integrity; humility; grace; patience; compassion. And he was charmingly self-effacing.
Even when he simply walked into a room the reaction normally involved smiles and a sense that everyone was about to feel better for his presence.
The first time I met another great man, Lubomir Moravcik, I asked him if he would like to play for Celtic. He replied; “I would like to play for Jozef Venglos. Since he is coaching Celtic I would like to play for Celtic.”
On that trip to Bratislava for the Slovakia v Portugal match I remember stepping off the plane contemplating the lengthy procedures which were likely to afflict us as we negotiated passport control and customs checks. We sailed through – the metaphorical red carpet was laid out. Everyone knew Jozef – and obviously loved him.
He insisted on taking me for a walk though his home city, which is absolutely beautiful. He was greeted warmly and appreciatively everywhere. We stopped at a classy jewellery shop where the owner presented me with a box of stunning crystal glasses – a gift from Jozef from his home city. They still have pride of place in my home and I shall continue to raise one of the glasses to him on a regular basis.
My sadness when my brother Craig told me that he had passed away was overwhelming. The world is unquestionably a poorer place.
As I have said, I have been blessed in my life to meet a host of outstanding people. Jozef Venglos was the finest of them all.