JOHN HUGHES reckons Billy McNeill, who celebrates his 79th birthday today, was already a veteran of the Celtic side at the age of 20 when the giant forward made his debut in 1960.
The Celtic legend had already been in the first team since making his first appearance for the Hoops in a 2-0 win over Clyde in SIXTY-ONE years ago.
McNeill was catapulted into the side by manager Jimmy McGrory as a raw centre-half in an emergency after Scotland international Bobby Evans had failed a fitness test.
The 18-year-old defender, who had only been at the club for a year following a season at Blantyre Vics, made an immediate impression in the League Cup group game 2-0 victory over the Shawfield side in front of a crowd of 39,000 on a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon on August 23 1958 at Parkhead.
McNeill kept his place for the next five ties in the competition before Partick Thistle ended the Parkhead side’s interest in the semi-final with a 2-1 victory.
He also made 19 league appearances on his way to taking over permanently from club icon Evans who was seen as a fixture in the side after over a decade of service in the top line-up.
Hughes talked fondly of the man nicknamed Caesar by his team-mates when he was interviewed by friend and author Alex Gordon for his autobiography, ‘Yogi Bare: The Life And Times of a Celtic Legend’, published in 2014.
BHOY WONDER…a young John Hughes who stormed into the Celtic first team.
He recalled taking his bow at the age of 17 in a League Cup-tie against Third Lanark in the east end of Glasgow on August 13 1960.
He said: “Was I nervous? One minute I was playing for Shotts Bon Accord in the Juniors and the next I was turning out for Celtic in front of thousands at Parkhead. You could say it was quite a transition.
“I looked around the dressing room and I saw the likes of Pat Crerand, Bertie Peacock, Neilly Mochan and Jim Kennedy all preparing for the first game of the season.
“It was a surreal moment, I must admit. Certainly, I was excited because I was aware a large contingent of my family and a lot of my friends would be in the crowd of around 30,000 that day. I didn’t want to let anyone down.
“I noticed Big Billy in the corner, looking calm and composed. He was only three years older than me, but was already an accomplished first team player, an automatic choice for the manager.
“Billy obviously saw I was a wee bit apprehensive and came over to me. I’ll always remember his words – even if they were 58 years ago.
READ ALL ABOUT IT…John Hughes and author Alex Gordon with the Billy McNeill tribute book, ‘In Praise of Caesar’ which was published in August last year.
“He said: ‘Just go out there, big man, and do your absolute best. If you give those fans 100 per cent I can guarantee you they will back you all the way. They will be behind you right from the start. Remember, you’ve got the best supporters in the world wishing you all the best today’.
“It was just what I needed to hear. Billy had been in the same position only two years previously and presumably someone had said something similar to him to gee him up.
“I was wearing the number nine shorts that day and I didn’t need any reminding that was the centre-forward position that the manager Jimmy McGrory had occupied on his way to becoming the club’s greatest-ever goalscorer.
“He finished his career with 472 strikes from 445 games – averaging more than a goal a game!
“I have to confess I had not set my sights on achieving such success at Celtic, but I did manage to finish with 189 goals to make me the club’s seventh-highest scorer.
“And it all started that day against Thirds. I just remembered Big Billy’s words throughout the game. I knew what he meant, of course, because I was a Celtic fan and I had stood in The Jungle with the club’s most vociferous followers.
“I was tall and well-built and I was actually quite good at athletics at school. I enjoyed running and I was blessed with a good engine.
THE GREEN-AND-WHITE JUGGERNAUT…John Hughes powers past Rangers’ Alex McDonald.
“So, when the referee blew to get the game underway, I was well and truly up for the Cup, quite literally.
“The manager was undoubtedly a man who could finish as the statistics show, but he didn’t give me any special instructions before the match.
“I think he just said something along the lines of: ‘You’ve showed what you can do for the reserves and I’ve got every faith in you. Just go out and play like a centre-forward’.
“And that was that. Going down the tunnel, Billy turned to me and said: ‘Remember, 100 per cent, big man’
“I thought it was a wonderful gesture from a guy who became a lifelong friend to go out of his way to reassure me – especially when he was only 20 years old and playing in one of the two most vulnerable positions in any team.
“I’ve always thought goalkeeper and centre-half are the two spots where an individual just cannot afford to make a mistake. If they do, it is normally costly.
“A forward can slice a shot past the post, a midfielder can misplace a pass and a full-back can fail to prevent a cross coming into the penalty area.
“The fans don’t remember their errors after the game, but if the poor old keeper or the guy immediately in front of him make a boob, then it can turn a game on its head.”
.Hughes, now a sprightly 75, said: “I was desperate to get at least one goal on my debut – a lot of my friend and family had demanded that I mark the occasion.
UP AND AT ‘EM…John Hughes puts Rangers duo keeper Gerry Neef and skipper John Greig under pressure.
“It was goalless at the interval and, to be honest, I had found it difficult to find an opening in our opponents’ back line.
“Once again, I can remember the words of Billy: ‘You’ll get a goal in the second-half, big man. Nothing more certain’.
“Of course, it was a bit of kidology, but it worked a treat with my confidence. Four minutes into the half, Bertie Peacock, an extremely skilful Northern Ireland half-back, swung in a cross and I got my head to it.
“The ball glanced off my napper and soared high over keeper Jocky Robertson who was the smallest keeper I have ever seen. I think he must have been about 5ft 5in and I was 6ft 2in, so it was an unfair contest when the ball was in the air!
“Neilly Mochan got a second and we won 2-0. It was the start of something good. I scored 17 goals in my first season, 31 in my second and 22 in my third.
“As a striker, you get a lot of accolades, but I never forgot what Billy McNeill provided for the team in central defence.
“Nor will I forget his words when I made my first appearance in Paradise. The gesture was so typical of a fine gentleman I am proud to call a friend.”
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