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.