A Hero Going Home
The outpouring of genuine emotion over the passing of Billy McNeill reminds us of how closely we Celtic supporters are bonded to our stars of the past. Billy and his long time playing comrade, Steve Chalmers left our lives but the echoes of their achievements will long reverberate in the hearts of Celtic supporters. Not only did they help Celtic to a veritable cupboard full of honours and put the club on the European and World map; they did it playing a quintessentially Celtic style of football. They attacked with pace and skill and it is testimony to that great side that they scored so many goals. In that breakthrough season of 1965-66 they hit 106 league goals in 34 games. In their finest season of 1966-67 the tally was 111 league goals in 34 games. This was a side built to entertain their supporters and they did so in a manner which still has people who saw them play looking back wistfully.
There was genuine emotion at the passing of Billy McNeil and for all the eulogies and praise rightly heaped upon him by the great and the good of British football it was the ordinary fans who spoke most eloquently about what he meant to Celtic. It was the ordinary Celtic fan who worked hard all week and trooped along to Celtic Park in all weathers to roar their team on. They knew a player when they saw one and they knew that unique blend of talents, skills and attitude that made a good team. There were better ball players than McNeill in Stein’s fabulous side, better passers of the ball too but no finer leader. Billy McNeill was imperious in the air and carried himself in a manner which spoke of dignity and determination in equal measure. As a boy, I’d stand in the old Jungle as anticipation built ahead of a game listening as the songs echoed around the stadium and the butterflies filled the stomach. Then I’d see Billy leading the team out of the tunnel, chest puffed up, filling those hoops like a real Celtic captain. You knew then you had a chance against anybody.
Those of us who invest so much of our lives in following the fortunes of Celtic know well the place men like Billy and Steve Chalmers have in our history and in our hearts. Football is a unique game in the sense that it grew from the working classes whose teams represented their communities. Few clubs in world football are as embedded in their community as Celtic is. This goes back to their very foundation when a marginalised, impoverished and often despised section of Scottish society created something uniquely their own. Celtic Football Club wasn’t just a vehicle for entertaining people on a Saturday afternoon; it was the physical representation of a community and it carried their hopes and dreams on their shoulders. The initial success of Celtic was so spectacular that a community took delight in them as it gave those with little a chance to be winners in what was a harsh time for those caught at the bottom of the heap. For a couple of hours on a Saturday they could be transported out of their hard lives and had heroes to laud in song and story. The flow of Celtic’s history matches that of the people who founded and continue to support the club. That impoverished Irish ghetto which gave birth to the club has long gone and its people have rightly taken their place in every echelon of Scottish society.
There are of course still echoes of the sort of prejudice the club and its community faced in its early days but they are the death rattle of a slowly dying culture which the vast majority of Scots reject utterly. The rise of Celtic from those humble east end streets to the sunlit uplands of Lisbon in May 1967 has what Billy McNeill called a ‘fairy tale’ aspect about it. The sporting importance of Lisbon is of course to be found in Celtic’s destruction of the smothering defensive football of Inter Milan. The social importance of what McNeill and his comrades achieved then was a seminal moment in the history of the Scots-Irish community and signalled that they had arrived; that they were now a fully integrated part of Scotland and no longer the ‘invisible people’ to be marginalised and ignored.
The years following Lisbon saw many more people from wider Scottish society identify with Celtic as their team and that fact would have filled the hearts of the founding generation with pride. This club isn’t about where you come from, the school you attended or your ethnicity; it’s about sharing a common vision of being a force for good in society and living up to its founding principles of charity and inclusion. Those ideals are at the heart of what we should strive for as Celtic men and women and as a club.
It is fitting that on this weekend when we said farewell to one of our greatest sons that his club will have an opportunity to clinch what will be their 50th league title. They will then have an opportunity to create their own piece of modern history by going for an unparalleled treble-treble. McNeill was in the end not just a Celtic player, Manager and ambassador; he was at heart a Celtic fan and the club’s successes will have delighted him as much as any of us who back the club from the stands. We say goodbye to a truly great Celt and take pride that such a man wore our green and white shirt with such distinction.
The great Native American leader Tecumseh once spoke of how a warrior should die without fear or regret and said…
‘Sing your song of death and die like a hero going home.’
One of our great heroes is now going home but his deeds will live on. His people will take pride in telling their children and grand-children, ‘I saw him play and he was one of the greats. He was our Cesar.’