McNeill – The legend who stormed Europe and stopped 10
I have read much today on people’s perceptions of Billy McNeill. His prowess as a player and a captain, his appearances on the pitch and his humility off it – and every word of it is true and fitting. He was a legend in every way!!
Unfortunately I was too young to know Billy the player. It is with deep regret that I never saw the Lisbon Lions play their way to the top of the European game. I would have given anything to see Celtic play Inter Milan in Lisbon, but I wasn’t to be born until 1969. My first footballing memories were from the mid to late 70’s.
My Dad was fortunate enough to have been born in the halcyon times of Celtic’s great history. He passed away a few years ago, and he too had dementia - remembering things that had happened in recent years was a blur, but his memory of his youth was crystal clear. He had been in the crowd when Celtic won the league Cup in 1957 battering Rangers 7-1 and had watched the European Cup winning side and the 9 in a row. I asked him who his favourite player of the entire history of his time watching great Celtic teams was and his answer surprised me. Without hesitation his reply was Big Cesar
I knew McNeill was a talent and a leader, but I had expected him to say Johnstone or Dalglish, or one of the earlier flair players that had entertained him in his own youth – but no!!
“McNeill was special – you knew when he was on that the opposition would struggle to get goals, because he organised so well and could read the game and he was brave!”
My own memories of McNeill were of him as a manager – and the Centenary year in particular- the significance of which I will come back to later.
The backdrop to that season was dramatic to say the least. Souness had come into Rangers the previous season as player manager, and due to English teams being banned from Europe after Heysel, they were able to attract some fantastic players from down South. Butcher, Woods, Roberts and Gough along with the big name that was Souness himself, made Rangers massive favourites to win the league as they had done in the 86/87 season. Celtic were in one of their most transitional pre-seasons ever too.
Mo Johnstone, Brian McClair, Murdo McLeod and Alan McInally were all leaving. Danny McGrain was given a free transfer and Davie Provan was forced to quit football altogether due to an illness. Having failed to secure a single piece of silverware the season before, Davie Hay was under severe pressure and before the season started found himself sacked – with McNeill being appointed in his place.
Celtic were massive underdogs going into that fateful season and McNeill had to get busy in the transfer market to give us any hope at all. Andy Walker, Billy Stark, Chris Morris all joined Mick McCarthy who had signed just before Hay was sacked. After the season got started the ranks were bolstered by the signings of Joe Miller and Frank MacAvennie for a crack at the title – and it was the latter which proved to be the one bit of class that elevated the team. With Aitken, McStay and Burns already in situ, and the optimism of the appointment of McNeill, the season started well with a 4 nil away win at Morton.
Hearts were proving stubborn in the campaign and managed a draw at Parkhead, but Celtic kept up a good record and beat Rangers in the league again in the New Years fixture. This helped maintain a gap between the two rivals that kept pressure on the favourites to try and close. The final Old Firm game came in March and Celtic proved victorious winning 2-1 with goals courtesy of Andy Walker and a screamer from Paul McStay who was simply outstanding that year.
At that point in the season the league was lost to Rangers and they knew it. A couple of weeks later we had the chance to complete the task with a victory at Tynecastle but Hearts won 2-1 and the inevitable was delayed until the following week in front of a reported 61,000 at Celtic Park. The true figure must have been closer to 70,000 packed in for a title celebration 100 years after our formation. It was an amazing day and was only trumped when we completed a double with a last minute goal against Dundee United in the Scottish Cup Final.
The significance of that year is lost on many. It was our centenary season and we won a great double that was as special as it was unexpected – but the true significance wouldn’t be known until years later.
In the ensuing years, we hit some of the darkest points in our history and failed to compete again until Fergus McCann came to the club. We went into a slump that allowed Rangers, with seemingly endless money at their disposal to buy household names, to romp away with league after league.
Wim Jansen is credited with being the man to stop Rangers winning 10 in a row – but what can never be forgotten is that, without that truly unexpected title win in 87/88, Rangers could have wrapped that accolade up two years earlier than Jansen came to the club and the good work of Fergus McCann had a positive enough effect. BOTH Jansen and McNeill stopped 10 in a row – at opposite ends of the run.
Celtic are on the brink of creating history. This year’s title is there for the winning and we should, if we can have a good transfer window, secure 9 in a row next year. Should we go on to win ten league titles in a row then it will be a fitting tribute to a man who lived for Celtic.
It was him who helped create history as our greatest ever Captain and him who enabled the next history makers to have ten as an achievable goal to aim for. Nothing is certain in life and if we do achieve that mighty feat – I will propose a toast to Billy McNeill the man who conquered Europe, made history as a player and created the opportunity for others to make even more memories.
Hail Hail Cesar!!!