By Tommy Sheridan
Monday 22nd April 2019 will forever be a date etched with pain, sorrow and tears in the hearts of Glasgow Celtic fans across the world. It is the day our Cesar passed away and a living legend left the mortal world. If there is such a place as Heaven Billy McNeill will be welcomed with open arms by Peter at the Pearly Gates and immediately given the number 5 jersey and captain’s armband in God’s team of footballing saints.
Billy McNeill was not just a footballer from Scotland he was an extraordinary man who led by example throughout an incredible footballing career that saw him set records and break records in world footballing terms.
Billy was nicknamed Cesar by his fellow players because of his physical similarities with the tall and well known American actor of the 1960’s Cesar Romero not because of a comparison with the legendary Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. However Billy’s leadership and organising qualities developed so acutely that the comparison with the Roman Caesar would have been apt.
Billy made 790 competitive appearances for Celtic and 32 in friendly games amounting to the club record of 822 appearances during an 18 year career from signing in 1957 to his last game in the Scottish Cup final of 1975. He lifted the cup as captain after a 2-1 victory over Airdrie before being raised high on the shoulders of the other players in recognition of his contribution to the club.
Billy captained Celtic to the Scottish record of consecutive league titles winning nine in a row from season 1965/66 to 1974/75. He captained the team to the European Cup final at Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional stadium against the mighty Italian giants of Inter Milan and inspired the team to a 2-1 victory and became the first football player from the British union of nations to lift aloft the massive European Cup on a warm evening on May 25th 1967.
In that 1966/67 season Billy did not just captain Celtic to become the first British team to win the European Cup he also led them to the remarkable feat of winning every competition they entered that season. Much was recently made of the multi-millionaires of Manchester City seeking to be the first club in England to win a Quintuple yet Celtic that season won not four competitions but all five they competed in (League, League Cup, Scottish Cup, Glasgow Cup and European Cup) a remarkable achievement in British Professional Football that is unlikely ever to be matched.
Billy’s main job as Celtic’s dominant centre-back was to prevent goals being scored against the team. He did that with stoic and superb consistency and inspired everyone else in the team with his courage and determination. He scored only 34 goals but they were memorable. He notched the winner in the 1965 Scottish Cup final and the crucial goal against Vojvodina to send the team into the European Cup semi-final in 1967.
He also scored in one of the most memorable matches I had the pleasure of attending as a Celtic daft boy. At the tender age of eight on 6th May 1972 my dad took me to Hampden to see Celtic play Hibernian in the Scottish Cup final. My wee heart had been broken a couple of weeks previous as we had exited the European Cup at the semi-final stage after two goalless draws against Inter Milan. The second leg of the semi-final tie was played on Wednesday 19th April at Celtic Park in front of 75,000 fans. It was decided on penalties and Dixie Deans, one of my favourites, missed from the spot. All nine other players scored. We lost 5-4. That same night across the city of Glasgow Rangers hosted Bayern Munich in the European Cup Winners Cup with 80,000 in attendance. Rangers won 2 nil and went on to win the tournament in Barcelona against Moscow Dynamo. They were the heady days of Scottish football with not one but two European competition semi-finals in Glasgow on the same evening. That was Billy McNeill’s era.
Billy lifted his team for the cup final appearance and 106,102 fans turned up. There was huge congestion and we were moved from one part of the ground to another along the red gravel race track that surrounded the pitch. I was on my dad’s shoulders. It was scary being moved and tension was in the air but then up popped big Billy to score from a Tommy Callaghan free kick.
For years my memory played tricks with me. I was convinced of two things. Firstly Hibs scored first and Billy scored the equaliser and secondly Billy scored with the head, as he normally did. In 2014 I was able to put both those memories to bed. Former Celtic player and friend, Frank McGarvey, invited me to attend an evening in support of the Tommy Burns Skin Cancer Charity. He sat me next to Billy McNeill and his wife Liz. I had first met Billy years previous at the Scottish Writers Footballer of the Year Awards ceremony in 2001. Billy had made my night at that event when he said to me, ‘you’re the real thing, a real socialist in that Parliament’. I was prouder than Henrik Larsson that night. He won the Player of the Year Award but I had received a compliment from the legend that was Billy McNeill. The kind words from Billy meant the world to me.
At the 2014 event Billy and Liz sat to my right and Neil Lennon sat to my left. I was on cloud nine. Sitting talking with two of my footballing heroes for hours. Billy was so humble and decent. He chatted away about politics and pensioner’s rights, which he was passionate about. I then asked him about the 1972 cup final. He put me right. He scored Celtic’s first goal that day and he scored it with his right foot. They went on to win 6-1. Billy was in top form and Liz was also wonderful. As anyone who knew them or met them would attest to they were simply lovely human beings.
Billy also managed Celtic football club with distinction. He led them to title glory in dramatic fashion in his first season in charge, 1978/79. Rangers needed only one point to win the league when a re-arranged fixture took place on a Monday night in May 1979. Trailing by a goal Celtic then lost Johnny Doyle to a sending off at the start of the second half. The task looked hopeless. One goal behind and reduced to 10 men it was surely going to be Rangers’ title. Inspired by big Billy on the touchline and big Roy Aitken on the park Celtic caused a huge upset and came from behind to win by 4 goals to 2 and give birth to the popular chant of ’10 men won the league’.
Billy had successful seasons in 1980/81 and 81/82 before leaving in 1983 to manage both Manchester City and Aston Villa in England. He returned to his footballing home in the crucial season of 1987/88. The Glasgow Celtic was formed in 1888, as a football club and charity to help the poor and put food on their tables. Billy was destined to manage the club in its centenary year. Throughout a season full of late winning goals Billy’s never say die spirit and determination saw Celtic win the league and cup double on their 100th birthday. In the Scottish Cup final against Dundee United Billy’s team were one nil down with only 14 minutes left to play. The team refused to give in or give up and Frank McAvennie scored in the 76th and 90th minutes to secure the trophy for Billy and his Celtic team.
Recently Billy was honoured by Athletic Club de Bilbao when they bestowed upon him the prestigious One Club Man Award set up four years ago to recognise players whose career with one team represented the values of commitment, loyalty, responsibility, sportsmanship and respect that football in its purest form should epitomise. Billy was more than worthy of such an award and it is a pity indeed that he has passed away before receiving it personally.
Billy McNeill was an icon of Scottish football and a giant of the game. He played with grace, determination, and fierce competitiveness but always fairly. He was a gentleman and an outstanding leader of men and ambassador for his club and his sport.
Billy will be missed by his beautiful wife Liz, their five children and all his grandchildren. But hopefully they will draw some comfort and solace from the fact their husband, father and grandfather was also loved and respected by millions in Scotland and across the world.
The giant statue of Billy McNeill which was erected in 2015 on Celtic Way outside Celtic Park will be festooned with flowers, scarves and messages of love and respect. Big Cesar may be gone from our world now but he will always be in our thoughts and hearts when we need leadership and inspiration. King Billy McNeill may be dead but he will never walk alone and he will never be forgotten. The Scottish Cup final this season will feature Glasgow Celtic and against Edinburgh’s Hearts. As fate would have it the final takes place on May 25th, fifty two to the day of big Billy’s finest hour. That final must surely become known as the Billy McNeill final and the Celtic team will not just be aiming to complete the history making treble Treble they must also honour Billy McNeill with a victory.
RIP Billy McNeill (2nd March 1940 – 22nd April 2019). Hail, Hail Cesar.