Only one King Billy
Watching Billy McNeil walk proudly, if a little gingerly, down the Celtic way to unveil his long overdue statue yesterday was a touching moment. Flanked by his family and a few of the players who helped him conquer Europe, he was embraced by the Celtic family with all the warmth and affection his contribution to the club has earned him. Billy served Celtic for all of his adult life with honour and distinction. His footballing achievements are immense but more than this he was Celtic to the core and fought for the club on and off the field. As a player Billy led Celtic to a golden era which saw him win more than 20 major trophies. All of this was achieved in the face of tough opposition in Scotland and that is a measure of how good Celtic was in that period.
There is a tendency among those of a certain vintage to think that things were better in their youth. You know the sort of thing; the summers were warmer, TV was better and children were happier. Some argue that football in days gone past was more exciting too. In terms of Scottish football there is more than a grain of truth in such claims as any statistical analysis of given periods will prove. The golden era of Scottish football which might have been plausibly claimed to be from the around 1960 to 1988, a period which saw Scottish clubs excel in Europe and 7 different clubs win the Championship. (Celtic, Rangers, Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, Hearts, Dundee & Dundee United) Despite Celtic winning 9 in a row in that era, there was genuine competition for the title in most seasons and Celtic clinched a few of those titles in the last games of the season. Competition is the key to driving up standards and making clubs more able to deal with the rigours of European football.
That period saw Scottish clubs reach 8 European finals with Celtic, (1967 & 1970) Rangers, (1960, 1967, 1972) Aberdeen, (1983) and Dundee United (1987) all flying the flag for Scottish football in Europe, No nation the size of Scotland can boast such a record. Indeed when one looks at countries with a similar population (Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, etc.) it’s easy to see that Scotland has a proud record in comparison.
During that period Scottish clubs jousted with the giants of European football and claimed many a famous scalp. Aberdeen defeated sides such as Bobby Robson’s talented Ipswich, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in Europe. Dundee United played Barcelona on 4 occasions and won all 4 games. They also battered teams such as Werder Bremen and Borussia Monchengladbach. Dunfermline beat Valencia and Everton, while St Johnstone defeated SV Hamburg over 2 legs. Celtic and Rangers were of course the leading lights and between them defeated teams of quality such as Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Fiorentina, Benfica, Red Star Belgrade, Leeds United, Borrusia Monchengladbach and St Etienne. Not forgetting Dundee, who reached the European Cup Semi Final in 1962-63 before losing to AC Milan. Over 35,000 packed old Dens Park for the second leg which Dundee won 1-0. They also beat AC Milan 2-0 in the UEFA Cup at Dens Park.
All of these facts serve to illustrate that a strong case can be made for claiming that period as one of Scottish football’s great eras. For Celtic to win the title more than all the other clubs combined in that time illustrates how good they were. They were competitive times with good sides striving to win the major prizes. An often unremarked truth is that the Rangers side of the late 1960s was one of the best in their history and yet they couldn’t overthrow the Stein dynasty. In a wider sense the achievements of McNeil and his comrades on that day in Lisbon in 1967 had a direct bearing on the calamities at Ibrox in more recent years. For some, to see the club in the east end founded by impoverished Irish migrants conquer Europe was hard to swallow. Much of the debt which eventually killed Rangers was built up as they sought to emulate the achievements of the Lisbon Lions. Ironically McNeil’s statue faces south-west towards Ibrox, a poignant reminder of their folly and failure.
As you pass the statue of Billy McNeil in the years ahead remember what it represents. Of course it honours this great Celtic player but modest as he is he would say that honour is shared with those team mates who helped him to create Celtic history. As big Jock gazes down the Celtic way towards his Captain he would no doubt smile and say in that gruff Miner’s voice, ‘Aye, you deserve it Billy.’ Those supporters who saw you play and those who didn’t will no doubt agree to that. In an era of fine players you were one of the finest and a born leader. The stars aligned in those times and bequeathed you a fantastically talented group of team mates who followed you into footballing immortality.
Thank you Billy for the memories of great days you helped create but above all thank you for caring about Celtic as much as we, the ordinary fans do. A select few deserve the tag ‘Celtic Legend’ you are one of them.