Friday 24 May 2019

David Kelly: 'Hail Cesar: Lisbon Lion McNeill lauded for his prowess and class on and off pitch'

Soccer giant: Honoured guest at the Uefa Cup Final in Glasgow in 2007. Photo: Action Images
Soccer giant: Honoured guest at the Uefa Cup Final in Glasgow in 2007. Photo: Action Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

It seems apt that Mick McCarthy will be in town today where he will willingly accept the invitation to pay tribute to Billy McNeill.

For the Ireland manager is just one of so many who can claim to have benefited from the canny experience and wisdom bequeathed by the soccer legend whose major influence on the game transcended all borders, even that most forbidding of all between Celtic and Rangers.

As the first Briton to lay hands on the jug with the big ears, the European Cup in Lisbon in 1967, captaining a team who all hailed from within 50km of Glasgow, his legend was already assured.

The statue that greets all who throng to the Parkhead cathedral commemorates that famous occasion and yesterday his faithful flock gathered there to reminisce, tearfully reeling in the years.

Celtic manager Billy McNeill celebrates after Celtic had beaten Dundee 3-0 to win the 1987/88 Scottish League Title at Park Head on April 23, 1988 . Photo: Getty
Celtic manager Billy McNeill celebrates after Celtic had beaten Dundee 3-0 to win the 1987/88 Scottish League Title at Park Head on April 23, 1988 . Photo: Getty

Since that famous day in 1967, he did nothing but embellish his legend, embarking on two memorable spells in management with Celtic which produced glory upon glory, as well as managing in England.

It was there he first encountered the rugged Barnsley defender who he would sign for Manchester City, propelling McCarthy into the thoughts of Ireland manager Eoin Hand and a successful international career.

McNeill was nicknamed Cesar in his playing pomp but when he had made his Celtic debut in 1958 there were precious few portents of the extraordinary deeds to come in his 27 years at the club.

Indeed it is remarkable to note his first eight years passed without silverware until the arrival of the messianic Jock Stein in 1965 transformed the club's fortunes.

A fan’s farewell yesterday. Photo: PA
A fan’s farewell yesterday. Photo: PA

Within two years, Celtic had improbably conquered Europe, the moniker of the "Lisbon Lions" an almost cinematically reverential nod to a stunning success.

By the time he retired in 1975, Celtic were a dominant force; during his time they strung nine successive league titles together; that glorious year of 1967 saw them win all five trophies available to them.

In all, he played 822 times and was never substituted; clearly there was no substitute capable of taking his place.

Brian Kerr recalled last night McNeill commentated on two of Irish football's most celebrated achievements, the 1998 European U16 and U18 titles which the Dubliner managed.

McNeill greeted Kerr off the team bus on both occasions and wished the team well. "He was a fierce nice fellah, very genuine," said Kerr.

In the often poisonous sectarian strife of the Old Firm rivalry in Scotland, such traits ensured McNeill's legend crossed enemy lines.

A colleague recalled how, as manager in the aftermath of a stunning late comeback to win a league title against Rangers in 1979, McNeill rang his opposite number John Greig the next day: "I thought you handled yourself very well, John."

In victory, as in life, Billy McNeill represented everything the great sportsperson - and person - should aspire to be.

Irish Independent

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