There was a time when Rangers were my favourite ‘other team’. Not that I’d ever seen them play, even on TV. In Northern Ireland, we were fed a diet of English football. Only Scottish fare we’d see, came in a one-minute window on a Saturday morning preview show.
And Northern Ireland being what it was, protestant lads were brought up to follow Rangers, young catholics, Celtic.
Throughout those years for me, and until I got fed up with the duopoly of Scottish football, Celtic mainly ruled supreme, until Rangers ended their great rivals’ 9 titles in-a-row in 1975. Billy McNeill was their leader, their captain, and whenever you’d see pictures of him, more often than not, he was holding some trophy or other above his head.
None were bigger or greater than the European Cup. My earliest consciousness of this came in 1968, a year after Billy McNeill became the first British player to lift the famous trophy, Celtic miraculously defeating Italian giants Internazionale in Portugal’s Estadio Nationale.
My favourite story from the greatest occasion in the Glasgow club’s history was told not by Billy McNeill, but by their outrageously talented right-winger, Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone.
”Big Jock always said we’d win,” Jinky would recall, “ ... but, to be honest, I thought we’d get a right gubbin’. I can see them yet standing alongside us in the tunnel waiting to go out on the pitch: Facchetti, Domenghini, Mazzola, Cappellini, all six-footers wi’ Ambre Solaire suntans, Colgate smiles and slicked-back hair. Each and every wan o’ them looked like yon film star Cesar Romero. They even smelt beautiful.”
”And there’s us midgets. Ah’ve got nae teeth, Bobby Lennox has’nae any either, and old Ronnie Simpson’s got the full monty, nae teeth top and bottom. The Italians are starin’ doon at us and we’re grinnin’ back up at ‘em wi’ our great, gumsy grins. We must have looked like something oot o’ the circus.”
In 1967, Celtic became the first non-Latin, northern European team to win the trophy. Yet only a year previously had won the Scottish Championship for the first time in 12 years. Twelve grim and barren years, in which they could only finish in the top three on four occasions, and runner-up only once.
Jock Stein’s arrival as manager was the catalyst and cornerstone for almost immediate success, building the team around McNeill, his on-field leader and Celtic’s rock at centre-back.
Early in his Celtic career McNeill acquired the nickname Cesar. Anyone would have been forgiven for thinking that this was due to his imperiousness, such was the stature of the man, but in fact it was in deference to Cesar Romero, the getaway driver in the movie, Ocean’s Eleven. Billy was the only one of his group of young players who owned a car.
His Dundonian father, Jimmy, was a army PE instructor, and his mother Nellie’s parents, Lithuanian immigrants. Billy was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, and lived in a miners’ row cottage until his dad was posted to Hereford. There Billy played rugby, mainly as a winger, but on the family’s return to Scotland, it was back to the round ball game at Our Lady’s High School in Motherwell.
In 1957, Stein, then Celtic’s youth coach sought his signature after watching him play for Scotland schoolboys against England. McNeill recalled Stein asking his mother: “If he steps out of line, is it OK if I give him a skelp?”
Mrs McNeill agreed, and Billy could not refuse the lure of Celtic, despite a desire to attend university which inevitably had to go by the wayside.
Stein left Celtic, returning again as manager in 1965, at a time when McNeill was on the verge of seeking a transfer. He transformed the club, winning the first available trophy, the Scottish Cup, and then set-off on that remarkable run of 9 Championships in-a-row.
There would also be six more Scottish Cups, and six Scottish League Cups for a team built around McNeill in central defence, and of course that European Cup, after which the team was dubbed ‘The Lisbon Lions’.
There was another European Cup Final appearance in 1970, after defeating the much-fancied English club, Leeds United in the semi-finals. The home leg was not played at Parkhead, but at Hampden, and was witnessed by a crowd of 136,505. Celtic, favourites this time in the final over Holland’s Feyenoord, lost 1-2 in extra-time.
McNeill pursued a business career after hanging up his boots in 1975, but this proved disastrous, and he entered football management with Clyde. Time at Clyde was brief before Aberdeen came calling. He took the Dons to runner-up spot in his first season (three places above Celtic) and might never have left only for Jock Stein’s decision to step down at Celtic. Stein recommended his former captain as his replacement.
McNeill found the lure of Celtic too hard to turn down once again, and interestingly he was replaced by another young up and coming manager at Aberdeen, Alex Ferguson.
Success returned to Celtic immediately, with the Scottish title arriving in his first season, followed by two more in a five-year spell.
By the early 80s McNeill was disillusioned and frustrated at how the club was being run by chairman Desmond White, and the transfer of Charlie Nicholas to Arsenal against his wishes was the last straw. He had also discovered he was being paid less than rival managers at smaller clubs; Aberdeen, Dundee United and St Mirren.
Frustrated by lack of resources to strengthen Celtic, McNeill was to conclude, “loyalty was a one-way street,” and he left to manage Manchester City who had just been relegated to the English second division.
He won promotion straight back to the top division for City, before leaving to take up a brief and unhappy spell as manager of Aston Villa, after which in 1987 he became reconciled with Celtic, entering their centenary season.
Even though faced by a freer-spending Rangers on a scale unprecedented in Scottish football, his leadership and heroic credentials were reinforced when leading Celtic to a League and Cup double in that momentous season. It wasn’t long however, before the club was back embroiled in boardroom battles and financial problems, undermining his ability to manage. He was sacked in 1991.
McNeill continued to be in great demand at Celtic events and was recognized in 2009, as the club’s first official ambassador, cutting a respected figure in the boardrooms of Europe. Sadly the following year he was diagnosed with dementia. A statue of him holding the European Cup aloft was unveiled in 2016 in the approaches to Celtic Park.
Tributes flooded in after McNeill’s death was announced last Monday. Sir Alex Ferguson, a former Rangers foe and his successor as manager at Aberdeen, in calling him a “giant in Scottish football,” had this to say -
“I, like everyone in Scotland today, is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Billy McNeill. He was a giant in Scottish Football, a man with an incredible presence and I’ll always cherish the fact that we entered professional football at the same time. We played against each other on many occasions and, as anyone who played against him will testify, he was the fairest of players.”
“He was also a truly good man and will be a loss to everyone who knew him. Farewell Cesar.”
Fellow Lisbon Lion and former team-mate Bertie Auld -
“I met him when he first turned 17, Jock Stein signed him for Celtic and I promise you, even at that time, he has that presence about him. He was 6ft 2in and I’m only 5ft 8in, so I had to look up to him!
He was a true professional. The great thing about him was that he was always pleasant off the park, and yet on the park he would change immediately. Billy had everything in his locker: height, build, attitude. He was a captain. Jock made him captain as a very young man because he was a leader.
Billy was somebody you could approach, he always gave everyone a lot of respect. He represented the players when it came to big Jock and Celtic Football Club. He was always fighting our corner. Not that we needed it, but he was there if we ever needed anything straightened out. That’s the kind of man he was. He was always there for you.”
Pat Gillen, President of the Montreal Celtic Supporters Club who was at Celtic Park for yesterday’s game against Kilmarnock reflected on his memories of McNeill.
“My personal affection of our own King Billy was that he was a fantastic player, captain and manager of Celtic. A true one-club guy. I met him on a few occasions, the most memorable for me was at Las Vegas Airport when he was sitting with all the Lisbon Lions and saw me wearing a Celtic t-shirt. He came across and invited me to come over and sit with them.”
Fierce rivals Rangers, across the divide in Glasgow have also paid tribute and will hold a minute of applause prior to their match today against Aberdeen, in the memory of a respected opponent.
The Rangers statement read -
“THE Directors, players and staff of Rangers Football Club are today saddened to learn of the death of Celtic legend Billy McNeill.
Mr McNeill passed away last night at the age of 79 having fought a brave battle with dementia in recent years.
He served Celtic Football Club as both captain and manager and was a true leader both on and off the pitch, always showing outstanding respect and conducting himself with great dignity.”
Rangers Honorary Life President John Greig MBE said: “We were the captains of Rangers and Celtic in the past of course but, more recently, we received our honorary doctorates from Glasgow University on the same day which was a special occasion – so we had a lot in common. He was a great man and at this sad time my thoughts are with Liz and her family.”
Derek Watts of the Montreal Rangers Supporters’ Club had this to say ...
“I’m too young to remember Billy playing and I wasn’t alive when Celtic won the European Cup, but recognize it was a fantastic achievement. Winning the biggest club trophy with all local lads, all but one from within a 10-mile radius of Glasgow is something that can never happen again.
When you talk about players from your biggest rivals, it’s easy to criticize and be dismissive, but there are a few that stand out, players you can’t help but to admire and respect. Billy McNeill is certainly one of those.
I think Bertie Auld summed it up best talking of Lisbon, when he said, ‘ .. the rest of us were shaking in our boots waiting to go out. Billy walked out onto that park, chest out and shoulders back, knowing he was going to win that day .... and the rest followed on.’”
As well as 822 games for Celtic, McNeill won 29 Scotland caps, mostly during the early part of his career, after making his debut in the infamous 3-9 defeat by England in 1961. He was such an immensely consistent and resilient performer that he was never substituted - in other words, he played every minute of his 822 appearances at club-level for his only club.
Thirty-one trophies won as player and manager at Celtic, but more than anything it will always be as the captain and leader of the Lisbon Lions and their magnificent achievements, that earns for Billy McNeill, the aura of immortality.
He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Liz and children, Susan, Carol, Libby, Paula and Martyn, and eight grandchildren.
Billy McNeill, footballer and manager, born 2 March 1940; died 22 April 2019