The King: Billy McNeill Remembered

“We have no king, except Caesar.” This declaration appears in the Gospel read out at the Catholic Good Friday mass. And they have often made me think “Billy McNeill,” despite his nickname being “Cesar” (see below). This Good Friday was no different. And now that Celtic’s greatest captain, and one of Celtic’s finest players has passed away, the phrase will always make me think “Billy McNeill.”

Tributes have been paid to McNeill from all angles, which in itself is a testament to the man. From the right-wing Spectator magazine to comedian Frankie Boyle. And Scottish Television’s (STV’s) long-serving political editor Bernard Ponsonby said it best, at the end of his rightly much-lauded McNeill tribute: “Hyperbole can grip journalists and the word ‘legend’ is sometimes overused and misused. Not today. Not today.”

McNeill played 822 times for Celtic, between 1958 and 1975. But the McNeill statue on the approach to Celtic Park isn’t of an iconic action shot, although he provided an amount of them over those 17 years. It depicts instead McNeill lifting the European Cup, as captain of the Celtic team which became Britain’s first, and still Scotland’s only, European club champions in, as the song goes, “the heat of Lisbon” on 25th May 1967.

Almost every word in the dictionary has been written about Celtic’s evisceration of Milan’s Internazionale and their (in)famous ‘catenaccio’ (bolt-hole’) defence. I’ve written a fair few myself. Such was Celtic’s dominance, after a nervy opening, that it didn’t need to be any centre-half’s finest hour. However, without McNeill Celtic would not have been there at all.

In the quarter-finals, Celtic played Yugoslav champions Vojvodina, from the Serbian town of Novi Sad. It has been said that Vojvodina might have won the European Cup in a quiet year. Celtic only lost 1-0 in Novi Sad, a good result in those pre-away goals rule days when cross-continental travel was more tiring now, making home advantage considerable. But they only had Stevie Chalmers’ 60th-minute goal to show for 89 minutes’ attacking in Glasgow. And the tie seemed destined for a play-off in neutral Rotterdam.

Then Celtic won a late corner. Charlie Gallagher aimed it towards the six-yard line and McNeill climbed above the massed ranks to bullet-head home the winner, Vojvodina having time only to kick-off again before the final whistle went. Even though surviving footage is almost impossibly grainy, McNeiil’s power cut through the murk. And he effectively cut Celtic through to the ‘Big Cup’ that March night. McNeill, though, had done this sort of thing before.

He made his Celtic debut in August 1958, ten months after Celtic beat Rangers 7-1 in the League Cup final. Remarkably, it heralded nearly eight trophy-less years for Celtic. They threatened in that time, losing two Scottish Cup final replays and blowing a three-nil first-leg lead in 1964’s European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final against MTK Budapest. There was a sprinkling of future Lisbon Lions among those sides. And McNeill became captain in 1963. But his disaffection with the club gave credence to rumours of a move to Spurs…until the appointment of John ‘Jock’ Stein as manager in early 1965 promised fulfilment for the nearly men.

That fulfilment seemed as just-out-of-reach as ever when Dunfermline Athletic went 2-1 up in 1965’s Scottish Cup final. Stein was a cup winner, though, inflicting one of those two replay defeats on Celtic in 1961, with…Dunfermline. His Celtic equalised. And with eight minutes left, McNeill parted the penalty box waves to head home the winner from Gallagher’s corner. And Celtic’s greatest era was began, with McNeill the captain and on-field leader and inspiration throughout.

I’d seen one still photograph of McNeill’s winner,  long before I saw video footage of it. It was one of two oft-printed images from that era which suggested that the camera can sometimes lie. The other was of mercurial winger Jimmy Johnstone seemingly being kicked ten feet up in the air by a Dukla Prague defender in the 1967 semi-final first-leg at Celtic Park. Video footage of that incident simply shows Johnstone leaping and turning in the air to try to block down a Dukla defender’s clearance.

The McNeill pic was snapped from behind the goal, with a packed ‘Celtic’ end a semi-distant backdrop. McNeill towered so high that it seemed more as if he’d descended from the Gods, so high above a team-mate that he could have been stood on his back. Olympic high jump gold medals have been won for less prodigious-looking leaps. He couldn’t have been lifted higher from a rugby line-out. But, remarkably, video footage showed the camera was telling an astonishing truth

Stein later said things wouldn’t have “gone as well for Celtic had we not won this game.” And another picture telling that very tale has accompanied many of this week’s obituaries, McNeill being unsteadily held aloft with the Cup by team-mates, with a look of undiluted joy which surprises and delights coming from such an otherwise disciplined public face. Tom Campbell and Pat Woods’ magnificent Celtic history, ‘The Glory and the Dream,’ first published in 1987 for Celtic’s centenary season, noted that this picture was “for years after, the largest-framed photograph in (Stein’s) office at Celtic Park.”

McNeill scored in two Scottish Cup finals (including a deft right-foot volley against Hibernian in 1972). He also netted a brilliant header against Argentina’s Racing Club to give Celtic a 1-0 first-leg win in a World Club championship trilogy (two legs and a play-off defeat).

He won one European Cup tie, literally, on his own. In November 1969, Celtic drew 3-3 on aggregate with Eusebio-inspired Portuguese champions Benfica. And, rather than the neutral ground play-off which might have separated Celtic and Vojvodina, this tie, was decided by two tosses of a coin (away goals rule critics take note). McNeill called “heads” to win the toss to decide which captain made the actual toss (no…me neither) and called “heads” again to send Celtic through to the quarter-finals.

Rangers legend John Grieg noted in his moving tribute that McNeill was “too good-looking to be a centre-half.” Current Celtic boss Neil Lennon referred to him holding the European Cup aloft as “this Adonis in a green-and-white shirt and white shorts.” But more than good looks, goals and well-timed “heads,” McNeill made his legend as an imperious centre-half and leader of men, playing 29 times for Scotland, despite debuting in ‘Frank Haffey’s match,’ Scotland’s 9-3 gubbing by England at Wembley in 1961, when, as the sobriquet suggests, the (Celtic) goalkeeper took the blame.

His nickname became ‘Caesar,’ in tribute to his imperious leadership, though it was originally ‘Cesar,’ because actor Cesar Romero played a getaway car driver in the original 1960 “Ocean’s Eleven” film and McNeill was then one of the Celtic squad’s few car owners. And like true leaders, he transmitted his authority to team-mates. I often wondered when first learning of Celtic’s history how they could have been four-nil down to Partick Thistle after 37 minutes of October 1971’s League Cup final, with a player such as McNeill in the team The answer was simple. He wasn’t.

I rarely saw McNeill in action. I was too young, partly But mostly because Scottish football coverage in England when I was growing up into a football fan in the 1970s amounted to brief highlights of the Scottish Cup final moments after the English one finished. And the brief highlights package of 1975’s Scottish Cup final, ten years and a week after THE Dunfermline game, was my first view of just what McNeill meant to Celtic…team and fans

Celtic had failed to win the league for the first time since colour telly was a lad. But they had the consolation of a 3-1 victory over Airdrieonians to give McNeill his seventh Scottish Cup winners’ medal. It would be his last medal, and match, as a Celtic player. And he went out pretty much at the top, as a Cup final winning captain, chaired aloft by team-mates including a delighted Kenny Dalglish, on Celtic’s lap of honour.

McNeill was at least once described as “officer material” during his playing career. And he quickly proved manager material. He led Aberdeen to second in the league in 1978 (three places above Celtic in a diminished Stein’s last season) and did at least some of the groundwork, including giving Gordon Strachan his debut, for his successor at Pittodrie, one Alex Ferguson.

He inevitably replaced Stein at Celtic in August 1978, leading the team to an iconic title in his first season, clinched with a last game home win over Rangers. The occasion became immortalised as the day “the ten men won the league,” after Celtic had Johnny Doyle sent off yet came from 2-1 down to win 4-2. His teams won the title again in 1981 and 1982, the main opposition to Scottish club football’s emerging ‘new firm,’ Aberdeen and Dundee United.

But Celtic were in a phase of disrespecting club legends, having handled Stein’s departure with the grace and class of Donald Trump. McNeill wanted to be the first ever Celtic manager to have a formal contract (yes, you read that right) and, for a complex set of reasons expertly explained in ‘The Glory and the Dream,’ McNeill’s rift with the board proved unhealable and he embarked on a four-season managerial spell in England.

He won Manchester City promotion from England’s second-tier in his second season. But he made the return journey in 1987 with Aston Villa, being neither the first nor last manager to fall foul of Villa chairman ‘Deadly’ Doug Ellis (an unironic nickname in football terms). However, as McNeill’s chairman at Manchester City, Peter Swales, admitted: “If ever a man was made for a specific club, it was Billy McNeill and Glasgow Celtic…his heart was always at Parkhead.” And in his absence, Celtic had faltered. So he was welcomed back to Celtic for their centenary season, 1987/88.

Wholly in-keeping with his instinct for the iconic, McNeill led Celtic to a league and Scottish Cup double to mark that centenary in suitably successful style, the cup being won when Celtic came from 1-0 down to win 2-1 with late goals in both semi-final and final, against Hearts and Dundee United respectively.

However, Celtic were in a downward spiral off the pitch. They were unable to understand, let alone match, the money Rangers threw at their “Souness revolution” which ultimately led to nine league titles in-a-row as Celtic floundered under what supporters nicknamed a “biscuit tin” mentality and toyed with extinction. McNeill was the first managerial casualty of this, and in 1991, with just the 1989 Scottish Cup to add to the centenary double.

However, McNeill’s reputation outlasted at a canter that of the small men who treated him so shoddily. And it was no surprise that he was appointed Celtic’s first official ‘ambassador’ in 2009. By then he’d already lived the role for decades.

In his last years, McNeill’s deteriorating mental health was the ultimate example of the indiscriminate cruelty of dementia. Yet some of the reminiscences this week of the care and attention former players gave to him during these years, from the Lisbon Lions right through to the teams he managed, are a testament to the high regard in which he was held by all the generations of Celts who met or worked with him.

“There’s only one King Billy, that’s McNeill,” Celtic fans have long sung, It’s a mischievous reference to the King William IV so cherished of old and new Rangers’ fans. But, in football terms, not inaccurate, even if McNeill’s ‘Caesar’ nickname suggests something more imperial.

I heard it said on Tuesday that while current Celtic captain Scott Brown is on his way to legendary status, “he’s no Billy McNeill.” But that’s no insult. No-one is, or ever will be. Not today. Not ever.