Icon Series: Billy McNeill
Updated: May 31, 2020
This article was originally published on April 24th, 2019.
"A spinner of dreams a writer of fairy tales" is how Scottish sports journalist Hugh Keevins (@shinjukushug) described Billy McNeill, after the announcement of his passing, this week.
With a career in soccer that spanned over 60 years, as a player, coach, and club ambassador. His impact on British soccer is undeniable.
As the leader of Jock Stein's famed Lisbon Lions, he became the first British player to ever hoist aloft the European Cup, after Celtic's 2-1 victory over Inter Milan in May 1967.
McNeill would also captain Celtic to nine successive titles, seven Scottish Cups and six League Cups.
Born in Bellshill, Scotland, on March 2nd, 1940, son to a soldier of the Black Watch. The military influence on his upbringing ensured he became comfortable with dishing out orders.
In his youth he would enjoy playing rugby, although he would fall in love with soccer and especially Celtic. After his aunt took him to his first Celtic game.
After falling in love with soccer, he would excel in playing the game. It would be his performances for the Scotland schoolboys team that would lead to him signing for the junior team Blantyre Victoria.
A specific performance against England schoolboys, in 1957, caught the attention of then Celtic reserve team coach Jock Stein, who would sign McNeill for £250.
McNeill would have to wait a year before making his debut, in a League Cup tie against Clyde at Parkhead.
His first seven years at the club would give little indication of the spoils that were set to flood down upon the Glasgow side, as he would finish campaign after campaign empty-handed.
McNeill would later state that things got so bad, that he almost left to join Tottenham Hotspur, in 1965. “I thought Celtic were a club going nowhere,” he later admitted. “I just didn’t think they were going to be successful. They lost good players.”
However, he was persuaded to stay after Celtic decided in a change in the club’s management, as Jock Stein took charge. “Soon after big Jock arrived, the rest, as they say, is history,” he stated. Stein transformed Celtic into a slick, well-drilled attacking machine.
It would be McNeil who would end the club’s long trophy drought, which had stretched back to 1957. When he powered home the winning header in the final of the 1965 Scottish Cup, against Dunfermline. In Stein’s first full season Celtic claimed the club’s first league title for 12 years.
The club's fans would honor him with the nickname "Cesar", in reference to the Ratpack film, Oceans 11 character played by Cesar Romero. However, McNeill would become the imperious Caesar in an amphitheater, when he would lead Celtic to the 1967 European Cup. As they become the first British team to be crowned champions of Europe, and gaining the name the "Lisbon Lions."
Only seven different clubs have won the European Cup plus their domestic league and major domestic cup competition in the same season, and Celtic were not only the pioneers, but they also won the Scottish League Cup in 1967 for good measure. The quadruple that Manchester City was chasing until a week ago was actually achieved half a century ago in Scotland, and there are those who will point to Celtic winning the Glasgow Cup in the same season and claim the club could boast an unprecedented quintuple.
During his time at Celtic he would make 822 appearances, between 1957 and 1975. He was such an important figure on the field that he was never substituted during a game, in other words he played every minute of his 822 Celtic games. Alongside winning the European Cup he won nine Scottish league titles, seven Scottish Cups and six League Cups. He would also earn 29 Scotland caps.
A Scottish team being crowned champions of Europe may be a strange thought for modern soccer supporters. However, McNeill was the on-field general for the great team who achieved this feat.
The Lisbon Lions team was built up of a squad of fifteen players, all but one player was born 10 miles away from the Celtic Park (Bobby Lennox was born 30 miles away). This is an achievement that will never be repeated.
Going into the final in Lisbon, Celtic were considered underdogs. As opponents Inter had won two of the previous three finals and were regarded as the best in Europe. While also beating reigning champions Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.
However, Celtic remained confident, with Jock Stein making bold claims about Inter manager Helenio Herrera. Stating "I am now going to tell him (Herrera) how Celtic will be the first team to bring the European Cup back to Britain. But it will not help him in any manner, shape, or form: we are going to attack as we have never attacked before. Cups are not won by individuals, but by men in a team who put their club before personal prestige. I am lucky, I have the players who do just that for Celtic."
Inter would take the lead after only seven minutes, thanks to a Sandro Mazzola penalty.
It would take until the 63rd minute for Celtic to level score, with Tommy Gemmill scoring from the edge of the penalty area.
Bobby Murdoch, would score the winning goal, with only 7 minutes left to play.
Celtic were far from lucky with their victory. As they had controlled most of the game. With Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson not seeing any more action after the 7th minute.
After West German referee Kurt Tschenscher blew the final whistle, the jubilant Celtic supporters spilled onto the field to celebrate. Some of the players were stripped of their jerseys but the invasion was well mannered.
After the pitch invasion, nervy Portuguese authorities feared the worst and decided on safety grounds that only McNeill would be allowed to take to the podium and lift the “trophy with big ears”, as he liked to call it, while the rest of Jock Stein’s players remained in the dressing room.
McNeill held aloft the famous trophy, one year before Bobby Charlton for Manchester United, 10 years before Emlyn Hughes for Liverpool. More than that, McNeill became the first northern European to lift the Cup, Celtic being the first club outside Spain, Portugal, or Italy to win it. Bill Shankly called Stein ‘immortal’ after the match.
On retiring as a player in 1975 McNeill initially worked with Celtic youth players before beginning his managerial career at Clyde and then Aberdeen. McNeill’s Aberdeen would finish runners-up in the league in his final year, their best showing since 1972 and three places better than Celtic.
In 1978, Celtic would see Jock Stein step down and recommending his former captain as the man to replace him. The call from his old club and manager was too hard to turn down, as he left Pittodrie to rejoin Celtic as Stein’s successor. Aberdeen would see Alex Ferguson come in to succeed McNeill.
McNeill’s return brought instant success, with a league title, in his first season, clinched with a 4-2 victory over Rangers on the final day of the season, and two others would follow in his five-year spell as manager.
During the early 80s he would become disillusioned and frustrated at the way the club was being run by chairman Desmond White. Celtic’s penny-pinching would see Charlie Nicholas being sold to Arsenal against his wishes. Which became the last straw, though McNeill had also discovered he was being paid less than rival managers at Aberdeen, Dundee United and St Mirren.
McNeill would move to England to manage Manchester City, then a Second Division club guided them to promotion.
In 1986-87 season, McNeill would move on from City to Aston Villa. A team in sharp decline, he would be unable to stop their relegation. Manchester City would join Villa by also being relegated, leaving McNeill to experience a unique double relegation.
Villa, like McNeill, were former European Cup winners, but just four years after Villa’s triumph they were in sharp decline. McNeill was appointed after a 6-0 defeat by Nottingham Forest.
He was unable to stop Villa being relegated, bottom of the table, and as City also went down that season, McNeill experienced a unique double relegation.
He would return to Celtic and secure his iconic figure status, as he oversaw a league and cup double in Celtic’s centenary season of 1987-88.
A Scottish Cup victory in 1989 would be his last honor with the club, as rivals Rangers dominated the domestic game.
Out with the soccer field McNeill would receive an MBE and was voted Celtic's greatest-ever captain. Leading to him being immortalized in bronze as an iconic statue outside Celtic Park celebrating that famous day in Lisbon.
As McNeill advanced in years it was reported that he had been suffering from ill-health in recent years. His family revealing in 2017, that he had been diagnosed with dementia.
It was announced that McNeill passed away late on Monday April 22nd, aged 79, with a statement from the McNeill family acknowledging that "he fought bravely to the end, showing the strength and fortitude he always has done throughout his life."
The news was followed by tributes from across Scotland and the soccer community.
Current Celtic manager, Neil Lennon said "When you think of Celtic and our incredible history, Billy McNeill is always one of the first names that comes to mind. He was our greatest ever captain and one of our greatest ever players, and along with his team-mates, achieved historic things for Celtic in the 1960s and '70s."
Rangers 9-in-a-row winning captain Richard Gough shared a touching moment with McNeill. Gough explains, “At the moment, only Billy and I have captained Old Firm teams to nine in a row." Billy was one of the first calls he received after completing the achievement. “He just said to me ‘Richard, congratulations to you and Rangers. I didn’t think it would ever be achieved again’, that always stayed with me. It summed up Billy’s class. He showed true respect to Rangers. As an Old Firm captain, I always looked to John Greig and Billy as an example of how to conduct myself. Billy was a top player, and a fair player. He was a true man. I took a lot from him."
Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon called McNeill "a giant of Scottish football."
Former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, said: ‘He was a giant in Scottish football, a man with an incredible presence. He was also a truly good man and will be a loss to everyone who knew him. Farewell Cesar.’