Today, the Celtic family has lost a giant who can never be replaced as Billy McNeill, captain of the Lisbon Lions and first non-Latin to lift the European Cup, has sadly lost his brave fight against dementia.
While the wider Celtic family and Scottish football at large mourns Billy’s passing, all thoughts, prayers, and commiserations go out to the McNeill family at this most difficult of times.
Football, so often divisive, also has the ability to bring people together and it is the measure of the man that McNeill’s sad passing has been met with dignified and genuine remorse across Scottish football and beyond. Old rivalries tossed aside at the loss of a giant and gentle man who was respected by all in the game. McNeill’s influence on the game outside of Scotland was such that just last week he was awarded the prestigious “One Club Man” award by Athletic Bilbao, honouring his loyalty and outstanding playing career with his only club, Celtic.
McNeill will, of course, be best remembered for that glorious day in May 1967 when he and the rest of the Lisbon Lions defeated the much fancied Inter Milan to win the European Cup; a result which changed the face of Scottish football and the fate of Celtic Football Club forever.
A towering and commanding centre-half, McNeill was brought to Celtic in 1957 as a schoolboy by then youth coach Jock Stein, the man who ten-years-later would guide Celtic to that famous win in Lisbon. However, it was not until the 1964/65 season, and Stein’s return to the club as first-team manager, that McNeill would taste his first success as a Celtic player, defeating Dunfermline 3-2 in the Scottish Cup Final. Naturally, it was McNeill who scored the winning goal that day, a goal that would launch Celtic’s domination of Scottish football over the next decade.
In an 18-year playing career for Celtic, McNeill would amass a club record 822 appearances across all competitions, winning 9 Scottish League Championships; 7 Scottish Cups; 6 League Cups; and of course, 1 European Cup. Not to mention several Glasgow Cups and the 1967 edition of Quizball. At international level, McNeill was criminally underused, winning a paltry 26 caps for Scotland.
At the end of his playing career, McNeill moved into management, first with Clyde and then Aberdeen where he laid the groundwork for the Dons future success under Alex Ferguson. In 1978 McNeill came home to Celtic Park for the first of two spells as manager. In his initial 5 year stay, he won 3 League titles, 1 Scottish Cup, and 1 League Cup before leaving for Manchester City, citing differences with Celtic’s notoriously frugal board as a major factor in his decision to leave.
After four years managing in England first with Manchester City and then Aston Villa, the call to once again return to Paradise was too strong for Cesar to resist, and in May 1987 McNeill found himself back in his spiritual home.
McNeill’s return coincided not only with Rangers beginning to flex their financial superiority over the rest of Scottish football but also with Celtic’s centenary year. Despite being underdogs for most of the campaign, McNeill was able to galvanise his squad into becoming League and Cup double winners, and further cement his place in Celtic folklore.
In 2015 the club unveiled a statue at the head of the Celtic Way of McNeill lifting aloft the European Cup.
The Lion may have roared for the last time, but his legend will live on forever, immortal.