Sunday 25 August 2019

Obituary: Billy McNeill

Captain of Celtic by the age of 23, and later, the most successful club manager in Scotland

PEERLESS: Celtic player and managerial legend Billy McNeill. Photo: PA
PEERLESS: Celtic player and managerial legend Billy McNeill. Photo: PA

Brian Murphy

Billy McNeill was 27 when immortality beckoned. The date was May 25, 1967, the venue was the Estadio Nacional, Lisbon, and the occasion was the European Cup Final.

Inter Milan had won the continent's pinnacle accolade in club football in two of the previous three seasons and were once again the firm favourites. But the Italian superstars were vanquished by a Celtic team, captained by McNeill, who were far more dominant than the final 2-1 scoreline suggests. The iconic moment when Billy McNeill became the first British player to lift "the trophy with big ears", to borrow his own phrase, will be remembered as long as football is played in Scotland.

Born in 1940 in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, partly of Irish and partly of Lithuanian descent, McNeill carved out a name for himself as a schoolboy footballer of exceptional potential. The son of a professional soldier, who had moved into the British Army Physical Training Corps, McNeill was tall, strong and mature beyond his years. McNeill had trials with Arsenal and Manchester United before being picked at centre-half for Scotland secondary schools, in 1957, for a match against England. Scotland won 3-0 and McNeill's assured performance was watched by Jock Stein, a reserve team coach at Celtic. Stein moved quickly to secure McNeill's signature for the Glasgow club, persuading McNeill's reluctant mother that her son would be well looked after by him. McNeill recalled that his mother instantly agreed when Stein asked, "Is it OK if I give him a skelp if he steps out of line?" Initially, McNeill was loaned out to a junior side, Blantyre Victoria, to help his development, but a spate of injuries at the beginning of the 1958/59 season saw him recalled to Celtic Park and he made his debut in a League Cup tie against Clyde.

Commanding in the air and solid, if never spectacular on the deck, McNeill quickly became a mainstay in a mediocre Celtic team. His impressive performances on the pitch, his undoubted leadership skills and his ability to inspire colleagues were noted by Jimmy McGrory, the Celtic manager, who appointed McNeill, at the tender age of 23, as the club captain at the start of the 1963/64 season. By this stage, McNeill had already won 10 full international caps for Scotland and a number of English clubs were preparing to swoop for Celtic's prize asset. Frustrated with Celtic's lack of success, McNeill flirted with the idea of joining Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 1964. A combination of his "love for Celtic" and "a slight fear of the unknown" ultimately saw him turn down a lucrative contract.

The game-changer for McNeill and for Celtic arrived soon after, in March 1965, in the shape of Jock Stein. His return to Parkhead as first-team manager opened the floodgates to an Aladdin's cave of silverware. The breakthrough came less than seven weeks into Stein's tenure when a late headed goal by McNeill in the Scottish Cup Final clinched victory over Dunfermline. This was Celtic's first major trophy in eight long years. Soon after, McNeill was named as the winner of Scotland's first Footballer of the Year award.

The partnership of Stein in the dugout and McNeill, as his manager's voice on the pitch, would power Celtic to a remarkable decade of success, transforming an underachieving team into one of the most feared names in European football. McNeill captained Celtic to a fabled nine League Championships in a row, he also won seven Scottish Cups and six Scottish League Cups. Even today, he still ranks as one of the most decorated players in British football alongside other illustrious names, such as Ryan Giggs, Kenny Dalglish, Paul Scholes, Phil Neal and his fellow Lisbon Lion, Bobby Lennox.

In an era when the salaries of footballers were not exorbitant, McNeill was nicknamed Cesar by his team-mates, in honour of Cesar Romero, the escape driver in the film Ocean's Eleven, because he was one of the few Celtic players who actually owned a car. After Celtic's triumph in Lisbon in 1967, supporters adapted the moniker Cesar to Caesar, as a tribute to McNeill's imperious leadership on the pitch and in recognition of a Celtic team that had came, saw and conquered all before them in European football.

Over 18 years, McNeill made 822 appearances for Celtic, a club record that may never be surpassed. A resilient competitor, extraordinarily he was never once substituted in his club career. His tally of just 29 Scotland caps seems paltry for a player of his ability and accomplishments and has helped to feed conspiracy theories about Scottish FA selection bias against Celtic players in this era.

After retiring in 1975, McNeill enjoyed further triumphs as a manager. After a brief spell at Clyde, he took up the reins at Aberdeen and set in place enduring foundations, which Alex Ferguson would later build upon. When his old mentor Jock Stein left Celtic in 1978, McNeill made an emotional return to Celtic Park as manager. Over the next five years, despite strong challenges from Ferguson's Aberdeen and Jim McLean's Dundee United, McNeill was Scotland's most successful manager, winning three League Championships and the Scottish Cup and the Scottish League Cup once.

A strained relationship with the Celtic chairman, Desmond White, saw McNeill depart Celtic for Manchester City in the summer of 1983. Narrowly failing to win promotion to England's top division in his first season, McNeill led City back to the top flight in 1985. Early the following year, McNeill was sounded out by the FAI about taking over as manager of the Irish team. McNeill found the offer appealing, but eventually turned the job down and Jack Charlton was appointed. In September 1986, McNeill made a poor choice in moving to Aston Villa. He was sacked after eight months by Doug Ellis, a chairman who revelled in the sobriquet of "Deadly" for his frequency in firing managers.

For the first time in his life, McNeill was unemployed, but this did not last long. In the summer of 1987, he made a sensational return to Celtic for a second spell as manager. Despite the threat posed by a resurgent Rangers, McNeill led Celtic to what he described as "a fairytale" League and Cup double in the club's centenary season. In 1989, a further Scottish Cup was secured in a nail-biting victory over Rangers, but two trophy-less seasons followed. Behind the scenes, Celtic were a club in financial turmoil, struggling to keep apace with a free-spending Rangers.

On May 22, 1991, Billy McNeill was dismissed as Celtic manager. The announcement provoked shock across the football world and divided Celtic fans. Though deeply wounded, McNeill behaved with characteristic dignity and loyalty. Immediately after his sacking, he urged supporters gathering at Celtic Park, "to carry on supporting the team" before departing to applause. Apart from a brief sojourn at Hibernian in 1998, McNeill refused all offers to entice him back into football management. He forged a new career as a football analyst working for various media organisations in Scotland and Ireland, including RTE and Today FM. In 2003, McNeill unsuccessfully stood for election to the Scottish Parliament as a candidate of the Scottish Senior Citizens Party.

In 2009, Celtic made McNeill their official club ambassador. The following year, he was diagnosed with dementia. In 2015, McNeill was present at the unveiling of a bronze statue of himself holding the European Cup aloft at the main entrance to Celtic Park. In 2017, McNeill attended some of the ceremonies to mark the 50th anniversary of Celtic's European triumph, but he was visibly failing. He died last Monday, surrounded by his family.

Packie Bonner, who was McNeill's first-choice goalkeeper at Celtic for many years, remarked last week that "legend is not a big enough word" to describe Billy McNeill.

This peerless giant of world football is mourned by football supporters everywhere. In Glasgow, his achievements and legacy lives on and will never be forgotten.

Dr Brian Murphy is a lifelong Celtic supporter. He lectures in history at the Technological University Dublin.

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