Once they stormed the walls of Troy…
Those sneering ‘journalists’ who disrespected Billy McNeil at the Champions League draw this week reminded me of an old story from Ancient Greece I read at school. In the story some young and ignorant boys are disrespecting some old men in the town square. They are rebuked by a man who asks, ‘Do you know who it is you are being so disrespectful to?’ They shake their heads and answer no. The man tells them, ‘Once these men were the greatest warriors in the entire world... once they stormed the walls of Troy.’ The boys, raised on tales of the Trojan war, were ashamed of their actions and apologise.
It’s a fair bet that few of you will know who Américo Tomás was but I’d wager that most of you will have seen his picture. Mr Tomás was the thirteenth President of Portugal and was present at the National Stadium in Lisbon on the 25 of May 1967 when the beautiful game was rediscovered. He had the historic task of handing the gleaming European Cup over to the inspiring captain of Celtic, Billy McNeil. There are many iconic images of the handsome young Celtic skipper holding the European cup aloft in the bright Portuguese sunshine. He stands in memories view proud of what he, his club and his community had achieved. It was as if 1967 was the vindication of 1888 and all those struggles, setbacks and trials had brought Celtic to this place on this day to proclaim their greatness to the world. Billy McNeil personified Celtic that day. He was that rare combination of pride and humility, of determination and dignity. For those of us who love Celtic it remains the greatest moment in the club’s history and for many others it was the vindication of football as it should be played. For McNeil it was to be the pinnacle of a fabulous career which saw him bring honour to his club, country and to himself. But it could all have been very different.
The glory of Lisbon was a long way off when a lanky teenager who had been spotted by Bobby Evans signed for his boyhood heroes in 1957. Bertie Auld well remembers young McNeil at Celtic Park in the late 1950s and said of him…
"Big Billy was a natural leader of men. He had presence and arrogance without being big-headed. When he walked into the dressing room in 1958 I instinctively felt it was the start of something big for Celtic.’’
Celtic had endured torrid times since the war and had won just one title in almost two decades. There were some spectacular moments like the 7-1 drubbing of Rangers or the Coronation Cup victory but there was no sustained success and no hint that they were ready to win the title let alone compete in the newly founded European Cup. McNeil had been a pupil at Our Lady’s High School in Motherwell, a school which had produced footballers like Matt Busby, Bobby Murdoch and other luminaries like Cardinal Thomas Winning. Signing for Celtic was a dream come true for the big defender and he was lucky enough to do some of his early football education under the watchful eye of an old pro who knew the game well and who had retired the same year McNeil had arrived. His name was Jock Stein and his appointment as reserve team coach in 1957 gave him a taste for management. It was no doubt disappointing to Billy and many others at Celtic Park when Stein left to take up the Managers Job at Dunfermline in 1960. However, following Stein’s departure, the subsequent few years, saw coaching, management and ambition become seriously deficient at Celtic Park. The club seemed to drift along as if hoping that something would turn up.
Some of the drubbings Celtic took at the hands of their greatest rivals in the early sixties hurt the fans badly. They were mauled 1-5 at home to Rangers in a game which saw the fans anger grow more vociferous. They were thrashed 4-0 at Ibrox as Pat Crerand threw his shirt off in disgust. They were dismantled 3-0 in the 1963 Cup Final replay after Bob Kelly had interfered with the team which had done so well to draw 1-1 in the first game. In 1961 they totally outplayed Jock Stein’s Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup final only to find an inspired goalkeeper and poor finishing cost them the cup. Amid the perennial crisis and underachievement, young McNeil continued to develop as a player and as a man. He was capped by Scotland regularly and the press often noted that his displays were the only bright light for Celtic fans in some matches during those lean years. By 1965, McNeil was entering his peak years and attracting the attention of clubs in England. As a young player with a growing family he began to think of where his footballing future might lie. However, things were about to change dramatically at Celtic as a new manager took up the post in March 1965. McNeil could scarcely contain his pleasure when the burly figure of Jock Stein returned Celtic Park. He was a man with an astute football brain and had a mission to return his old club to its former glories.
Stein knew McNeil was the natural leader he needed on the field. Some say their relationship was like a father and son, others that it was more akin to a General and young Officer. To me it was a partnership, a meeting of minds. Stein brought the self-belief, organisation and greater professionalism to a talented but essentially inconsistent and underachieving young squad. McNeil brought leadership, example and a burning desire to see Celtic rise again. Their first test together was the Scottish Cup final of 1965 when Dunfermline again provided the opposition. Twice Celtic fell behind and twice they refused to wilt and equalized. Then with the clock running down came an iconic moment for Celtic and McNeil. In old photographs he hangs imperiously in the air waiting to meet a corner with his head. The ball bulleted into the net and the Celtic fans and players roared out as one that a new era had arrived. No longer will the sleeping giant slumber, it was awake and filled with a hunger that will not be easily satiated.
The following decade saw Stein and McNeil embark on an incredible journey as Celtic entered the most successful period in their history. McNeil led Celtic to 9 titles, 7 Scottish Cups and 6 League Cups as well as winning the greatest prize in European club football on that warm day in Portugal. It was as if the lean years had made Celtic ravenous for success and they gorged themselves for ten glorious years. McNeil’s personal contribution to this cannot be underestimated, not only his timely goals in European ties or cup finals, but his unstinting professionalism and will to win. For more than 800 games he filled that famous hooped shirt with pride and drove others on to help continue the success of the Stein years.
Far superior writers than I have written in praise of Billy McNeil’s achievements on the field and in the dugout. I write as fan lucky enough to have seen this excellent footballer play. But he did more than simply play; he led by example, inspired, cajoled, drove his team on and was the epitome of what a Celtic Captain should be. When they talk of Celtic’s greatest team his name will be one of the first written down. He has left a mark on Celtic which few before or since can match and for that every Celtic fan in proud and glad to count Billy among our heroes.
The teams came out to a tremendous roar from the crowd of over 130,000 at the 1969 Scottish Cup final. Celtic looked immaculate in their fresh green and white shirts and were led by the imperious McNeil. The Celtic captain strode the Hampden turf exuding that air of confidence which made you feel that you had a winner on your side. The packed Celtic end roared as Celtic started the game and charged at the Rangers defence with typical pace and vigour. A corner was won in the first minute and McNeil strode forward to add his height to the attack. As the ball curled into the box he lost his marker, a certain Alex Ferguson, and headed the ball towards the goal. It struck the inside of the keeper’s right hand post and nestled in the net behind him. The deafening roar which greeted that goal signaled that today would be Celtic’s day. McNeil punched the air in delight as his team mates engulfed him. The game would end 4-0 to Celtic and the skipper who started it all in the first minute of the game completed his day by hoisting aloft the cup in front of his adoring fans. How they roared in appreciation of their skipper and the qualities he brought to the club they all loved.
McNeil was a warrior, a leader who led his men through many battles with distinction and class. Those ignorant journalists at the Champions League draw didn’t know they were in the presence of greatness. That is to their shame but we who know of Billy McNeil’s achievements as a player and as a man will forever be thankful for his contribution to Celtic. Thank you Billy.