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Billy McNeill, the imperious leader of a community

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They say you should not get to know your heroes as they will only disappoint.  Very few heroes grow in stature when you get to know them as individuals, but Billy McNeill did just that.  He was more than just a football hero, more than just the first Briton to lift the European Cup, more than an imperious player, manager and authority in the game.  He was generous with his time, interested in those he met, always happy to engage with fans, the perfect ambassador of our community.  We lost him today, aged 79, after years of dementia.

None of us today, including those who are old enough to remember the fifties, could probably explain just what an impact Billy, Jock Stein and the rest of the Lisbon Lions had.  Eight years had passed since Celtic won a trophy before the big man rose to head the winner in the 1965 Scottish Cup Final against Dunfermline.  That in itself was a momentous event.  If the story ended there, that Cup win, that header, would be secure in our memory.  But so much more followed.

A club which had been starved of success for 40 years was deluged in glory.  Nine-in-a-row was a world record.  When the run ended, there was disappointment, but we were also able to look back on a staggering achievement.  The European Cup, a further final and two semi-finals took Celtic and Billy’s reputations across Europe.  This was a team of winners led by a titan.  Billy, articulate and charming, was master of all.

He became manager of Celtic, who finished the previous season in fifth place, in 1978, immediately restoring the club to the top of Scottish football.  He repeated this obligement in 1987, but by then the tides were turning.  Money would determine success from that point on and Billy retired to what was his first role at Celtic – a supporter.

News of Billy’s dementia spread before the family made the announcement and I met him a few times during that period.  On one occasion, he stopped my son with a question: “When did Celtic win the European Cup?”  On hearing the right answer, Billy joked, “You’ve got a better memory than me.” And with a smile, added, “I suppose I should stop making jokes like that”.  The inner strength the man had was astonishing.

The last time I spoke to Billy he was in the company of John Clark and I was with my Dad.  After a few moments chat, Billy said, “I remember you, you delivered butcher meat to my mother.”  40 years had passed since that was true, and Billy was already suffering dementia, but he remembered the ordinary Celtic fans who returned the joy he gave them for so many years.  Even through his illness, he inspired and impressed.

For all the trophies, the goals and the glory, my fondest memory of Billy is when the Celtic media team took him back to the tunnel at Estadio Nacional.  He explained the team’s walk from the dressing room and how they raised themselves in that tunnel for the task ahead.  None of what that  team did was easy.  It took courage, hard work and extraordinary ability.

If you met him, if you knew him, tell people about him for the rest of your life.  Share the memories and the joy.  Remind people that he was hard as granite when he needed to be, that he was intelligent, funny and a great football player.

Today’s loss is overwhelmingly to Liz, the family and their close friends.  The rest of us can only wonder at how lucky we were to have Billy in our lives.

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  1. Very sad to hear of the passing of our greatest Captain and in my opinion the greatest Celt ever.

     

     

    Rest in peace Billy.

     

     

    Prayers said for his family and friends.

  2. glendalystonsils on

    Never met Billy personally , but having lived through the Lions era , it feels like losing a close family member.

  3. What can you say in tribute to a man Like King Billy,that has never been said before.I’m sort of stuck for words. I met him had a wee drink with him. I loved every minute.What an absolute Gentleman.God Bless to his lovely wife and family. RIP. Paddy.

  4. Billy won’t have far to travel to get to heaven. I my eyes he is still soaring above Hampden waiting on Charlie G’s corner.

     

    RIP big man, thoughts with Liz and family

  5. Meet Billy 3 times twice at our supporter club functions where I had the privilege of sitting next to him at the head table , the singer was sitting there as he was a Man City fan no chance move I am sitting there if our President is not I said. He was brilliant bumped into on the Black Isle when he was visiting friends many years earlier he was delighted to talk to myself and my brother.

     

    Billy McNeil our captain our leader our hero RIP very sad

  6. Jim Spence tweets:

     

     

    “Hail Caesar. Requiescat in pace Billy McNeill. No words are elegant enough to describe your contribution to Celtic, Scotland, and all who love football and honour.”

     

     

    I must say, that final word got to me. No description is more apt.

  7. Teary here, but his family and P67 encouraged us to tell stories about our great Bill McNeill:

     

     

    So it’s around 6pm on a Sat nite early 70s, and my Dad’s driving us home after I’ve just bought my first 45rpm.

     

    He sends me into the local shop for (I think) a plain loaf, and as I approach the counter I see Billy waiting in line.

     

    I bolt to the car to excitedly tell my Dad, saying I want/need Billy’s autograph but I don’t have a pen or paper.

     

    My Da (always) had a bookie’s pencil and tells me to use my plain white 45rpm single cover as the paper.

     

    Billy’s still inside and when I badger him – Mr McNeill, Mr McNeill – he beams and says “Sure son” when i ask for his autograph – my first ever.My first single with Celtic’s captain signature on it; I will never forget the delight!!

     

     

    Fast forward to Euro96, and I’m attending the Eng V Sco game – I’m all suited and booted up.

     

    Guess who I see walking toward the ground? So, like an excited schoolkid I speed up and accost him – “Mr McNeill, Mr McNeill” asking him to sign my Euro96 brief. I don’t think I was as casual as to actually say Billy.

     

    I tell him he was my first ever autograph and he says summit like ‘Is that right?’ and smiles that wrinkle-eye smile of his before signing the ticket, and off I go; a grown man grinning like a linty; my day made pre-game!

     

    (I also got Gianluca Vialli’s signature on the other side that day and gave the ticket to my mate’s wee lad who, as a Dundee Utd supporter, was always going to be short of legends’ memorabilia ;))

     

     

    HH Billy and may you RIP.

  8. May you rest in peace Billy.

     

     

    To me the greatest Celt ever and one of the greatest Scots too. An example to us all

     

     

    Hail Caesar

  9. Not too often that football affects me emotionally these days. Today is very much an exception.

     

     

    Yes, that header in ’65 was huge. Powerful. Defining.

     

     

    Rest in peace, Cesar

  10. A very moving testimony Paul. Sums up Billy McNeil perfectly.

     

     

    My first recollection of Billy was his appearances at right back in place of an injured Dunky McKay . He looked even then the player he became.

     

     

    I was at the Dunfermline Cup finals in 1960 when Billy played but had to refresh my memory to find he was at CH in this team.

     

     

    GK Frank Haffey

     

    RB Duncan MacKay

     

    LB Jim Kennedy

     

    RH Paddy Crerand

     

    CH Billy McNeill

     

    LH John Clark

     

    RW Charlie Gallagher

     

    IR Willie Fernie

     

    CF John Hughes

     

    IL Stevie Chalmers

     

    LW Alex Byrne

     

     

    I only remember the disappointment of losing out in the midweek replay and asking my dad as I trudged back through Glasgow Green if Celtic would ever win anything. Little did I know.

     

     

    However I well remember Billy’s headed winner against Dunfermline in 1965.

     

     

    As he was moving up the park my mate was shouting “FFS McNeil what are you d…… Yassssss.”

     

     

    The repeat act was v Vojvodina in the 67 Cup run. I think Charlie Gallagher delivered both crosses from the corners.

     

     

    Billy’s errors were few and are rightfully lost in the balm of forgiveness, something supporters are not quick to bestow, but made easy by the character of the man.

     

     

    I heard him speak amusingly at a Round Table Dinner in the 80s and chatted about his early appearances at RB. I met him again much later when waiting to attend a couple of meetings on Res12 business where his smile and warmth rekindled the happy memories.

     

     

    I’ve been lucky enough to share the same lifetime of a great human being whom Celtic and supporters were lucky enough to have in their midst for so long.

     

     

    My condolences to his family,

     

     

    Billy will be sadly missed but always remembered.

  11. Left the blog some time ago but felt I needed to post my sincere sadness at the news of the passing of our greatest ever captain. Billy you gave me some of the most enjoyable and memorable moments of my life.

     

     

    RIP Cesar

  12. Dexter P. Bampot on

    Over 800 games. A one club man and the one man who epitomises our club.

     

     

    RIP Cesar.

     

     

    And thank you.

  13. Hail Cesar, Rest In Peace, remembered with honour for all time. I remember when you coached us kids at buttons in Ayr, and I saved your penalty. Our King Billy, a giant of a man, a real hero who had time for ordinary folk. Your statue will stand the test of time and your story will grow in the telling.

  14. just logged on, god bless billy mcneil and may he rest in peace I feel so fortunate that I got to see him in the flesh,so sad.hh,

  15. This morning I suddenly realised how fortunate I am to have been around this period in Celtic’s history. I have witnessed amazing feats by my football team none greater than “Big Billy’s” holding aloft of the European Cup on that warm sunny night in Lisbon in 1967. God Bless you Cesar and thanks for all those wonderful memories that I will treasure forever, por cierto.

  16. Just put a scarf on Billy’s Statue,tears blinding me,thanks for being the Greatest Celt, placed on behalf of guys on here,who cant get to Celtic Park at this time.

  17. Dunfermline 65.Vojvodina 67.Racing Club 67.Great,great memories of a great,great player and captain.In 2008, Billy and Liz were our special guests of honour at the Perth CSC in Western Australia.His interaction with all he met just confirmed that he was also a great,great man.Absolutely up there with Maley,McGrory,Stein and Johnstone. God bless you, Billy.

  18. How can you put words into print that would do any justice to the man we have just lost, when I say we, I mean the Celtic family, cannot think how his own family are feeling, lost my own father at the New Year, felt that my life had just collapste, feel the same way today, we will never never see the likes of him ever again, feel so happy that I had the pleasure to meet him and to watch him in 2 European finals, semi finals and countless quarter finals of this great prestigious competition, not to mention Scottish football, I for one will greatly miss him but will never forget him, condolences to his family.

     

    RIP BILL McNeil

  19. Big Georges Fan Club - Hail, Hail, Wee Oscar on

    Sitting here crying – beautiful stories and descriptions of a great family man. People who where able to spend time with Billy were very much blessed.

     

     

    HH

     

    BGFC and Wee BGFC

  20. For the service, the Club should consider opening up the stadium and putting it on the screens.

  21. God bless our great captain and his family.

     

     

    Truly, he will never walk alone.

     

     

    RIP Billy.

  22. Was privileged to have met Billy many years ago.

     

    A true legend . Encapsulates all that Celtic Football Club stands for

     

    RIP Billy

     

     

    Hail Caesar

  23. The mark of the man was impressed early on me when, as a nipper in early/mid 60’s (not our most successful period) I was at Celtic Park watching us for once giving a team (might have been Third Lanark!!) a gubbing. Late in the game the ref awards us a penalty that even I saw was wrong. Big Billy trots up and is obviously telling the ref that he was wrong, but said ref insists it’s a pen. So, up steps Big Billy, takes the ball, places it, boots it over the bar and trots back up the park. Honourable even then.

     

     

    Fast forward to the early 70’s and the Easter tournaments run by Eastercraigs and Celtic BC. As an ‘official’ with Eastercraigs at the time I was on the gate watching the folk coming in, parting with their £1 when who arrived but Big Billy and Luggy Clark. I stepped forward and said “Just come in guys”. “Not at all” says the Big Mhan, “we’ll pay our way”.

     

     

    Later the same decade I was in the Southwaite services when who appears but Billy and wife Liz. The Big Mhan was ‘accosted’ by numerous Tims during his coffee break, but had time for all and sundry, including a proud father telling his two bhoys “That’s the great Billy McNeill, I’ve met him you know”.

     

     

    Saturday is going to be great and sad in equal measure.

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