CRAIG BROWN was a valued contributor to author Alex Gordon’s tribute book to Celtic legend Billy McNeill, entitled ‘In Praise of Caesar‘ and published in 2018.
The former Scotland international manager passed away on Monday after a short illness at the age of 82.
Here is the entire chapter in the book.
BY his own admission, one of Billy McNeill’s best-ever signings was Steve Archibald. Billy was aware of the player’s qualities during his brief stint at Clyde before moving to Aberdeen in the summer of 1977.
I took over from my long-time friend at Shawfield and it wasn’t long before McNeill and Archibald were reunited at Pittodrie. But, as ever, there is a story behind any story of a transfer. And Billy almost lost out on Archibald for the most bizarre reason.
I had a spell as assistant manager at Motherwell in 1974 before accepting the Clyde position. Very quickly, I got to know how a part-time club works. I was combining my duties as a lecturer at Craigie College in Ayrshire while running the Rutherglen side and I thought we were doing quite well in the first few months of my tenure.
We were top of the old Second Division and I was hopeful of promotion. Then along came a couple of directors who informed me the club was facing financial struggles and I would have to sell one of my best players. There was little point in protesting, I knew exactly what I was getting into when I agreed to follow Billy.
My two best players were Steve Archibald and Joe Ward. Steve was a wonderfully talented and exceptionally versatile player. I knew I could trust him in any position in the team and he wouldn’t let me down. He even played in goal against Queen’s Park at Hampden when goalkeeper John Arroll sustained a broken leg.
SIGN HERE, PLEASE…Steve Archibald, accompanied by wife Maureen, joins Aberdeen with Craig Brown and Billy McNeill looking on.
Billy had played him as sweeper and in midfield and he looked a natural in both positions. I didn’t want to lose a player of his calibre, but I reckoned he might be the best bet to bring in the much-needed money.
Joe Ward was a big, strong centre-forward who was also well equipped to make the step up a couple of divisions. Every team needs a goalscorer and Joe was our main threat. Albeit reluctantly, I got in touch with every single manager in the Premier Division to let them know our situation.
Basically, they could have their pick so long as they had the cash to back their interest. Dundee United boss Jim McLean watched Steve in a league game against Raith Rovers and was clearly unimpressed.
‘He’ll never be a player,’ was his verdict. Alex Stuart, manager of Ayr United, didn’t quite agree with the Tannadice gaffer and liked the look of Archibald. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the sort of cash we required and I told the directors we might have to do some bartering with the Somerset Park side. Alex Stuart’s team was struggling at the time in the top flight and a player of Steve’s undoubted quality would have given them a huge boost.
The Ayr United boss assured me his club could only go to £15,000 for my player and they would offer one of their squad in part-exchange. Once again, I relayed the message to the Clyde board. They had hoped for something in the region of £25,000, but there was no way the Ayrshire club could raise that amount.
I was a little surprised Billy McNeill did not come in straight away for Archibald. I knew he rated the player, but he had only been at Pittodrie for five or six months, so, possibly, he was being fair to the playing staff he had inherited from Ally MacLeod. In any case, he had brought in Gordon Strachan from Dundee in November for a sizeable fee with midfield player Jim Shirra added to the deal. Whatever the reason, Billy did not come in with an offer for Steve at that stage.
BILLY’S BOY…Steve Archibald in action for Aberdeen against Morton.
So, that left us with Ayr United, the offer of a £15,000 cheque and A.N.Other. The Clyde board decided to accept the money and it was left to me to haggle with Alex Stuart for the player who would be the makeweight in the switch. I always had a high regard for Jim McSherry, a busy, hard-working midfielder who had the happy knack of being able to contribute a goal or two.
Everything looked set for Steve to go to Somerset Park and show what he could do in the Premier Division and for McSherry to move to us. And that is where fate stepped in to scupper the deal. When the proposed transfer was put to McSherry, he made it clear he wouldn’t be part of any such transaction.
‘I’m no’ playing at a dog track,’ was how he put it rather forcibly and it was back to the drawing board for me.
Intermittently, I had kept in touch with Billy and at the turn of the year, with the Dons going well in the league, he made contact to see if the situation at Clyde had changed. I told him it was still exactly as it had been a couple of months earlier; the club was still in need of money and all of my players were for sale.
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you £20,000 for Steve Archibald.’ I wasn’t having that and I told him, ‘You know he is worth more than that, Billy. Make it £25,000 and you could have a deal.’
He told me he would discuss it with Dick Donald, his very likeable chairman at Aberdeen. I updated my directors and you could sense the relief a cheque of that amount could do for everyone connected with the club. Billy got back to me and we had a handshake over the phone.
Everyone was a winner in this move. Clyde received a fair fee for their player, Billy was delighted with his acquisition and, as you would expect, Steve didn’t need too much persuasion to give up his job as a car mechanic to go full-time at Pittodrie.
On the day of the transfer, I recall the weather was dreadful with heavy snows and there was no way Steve could drive north to go through the signing formalities. I made sure he was on a train heading for Aberdeen before anyone changed their mind.
I was happy for Steve because he had been a thorough professional at Clyde and worked hard in training. I had every confidence he would be a success at his new club, but I couldn’t have predicted him joining Barcelona as Diego Maradona’s replacement in 1984. That would have been a bit of a stretch.
BARCELONA ACE…Steve Archibald, from Clyde to Aberdeen, a stop at Spurs and onto the Nou Camp.
And whatever happened to Joe Ward? He moved to Aston Villa in 1979, but made a quick return to Scotland with Hibs and then had a brief stint at Jim McLean’s Dundee United. He moved down the leagues after that.
I was delighted Billy had a relatively successful season at Pittodrie, second in the league and runner-up in the Scottish Cup wasn’t at all bad for someone in their thirties in his first full season as a manager. I wasn’t one bit surprised, either, when Billy gave it all up when he got the call from Celtic a year later.
Billy and Celtic were meant to be together. In fact, I came close to joining Billy at Celtic after we had played alongside each other in the Scottish Schoolboys’ side. You took one look at this poised and assured centre-half and knew he was destined for great things in the game. The only club he ever talked about was Celtic, no other team mattered to Billy.
He lived in Bellshill when I was in Hamilton and we would go into training together on the number 64 bus. A lot of clubs looked at Billy as a youngster, but they were wasting their time. Simply put, he was Celtic mad.
We played together in the Scotland Under-18 side against our England counterparts at Parkhead and we won 3–0. We had a very useful team with players such as Billy Little (Aberdeen), Dave Hilley (Third Lanark) and Brian McIlroy (Rangers) in the ranks.
As things turned out, Billy did sign full-time for his beloved Celtic after a short stint in the Juniors with Blantyre Vics. I headed across the Clyde to sign for Rangers from Coltness United. I injured my knee and it didn’t work out for me at Ibrox, but Bob Shankly signed me for Dundee in 1960.
FUTURE STARS…Billy McNeill (back row, second right) and Craig Brown (middle row, extreme left) line up for Scotland’s Under-18 Schoolboys.
Bob, brother of Liverpool legend Bill, liked my tenacious style and soon gave me a role in the first team to ‘sort out’ opposing players who could be troublesome on match day. That became my strength. My major asset was to identify the opposition’s key man and make sure he didn’t make a telling contribution to proceedings for the next ninety minutes.
I recall playing against Celtic’s classy Willie Fernie and I was told to get out there and keep him quiet. Not the most flamboyant roles within a team’s structure, but I was okay with the manager’s instructions as long as it was for the good of the team and we got a reasonable result.
I also remember playing against Bobby Lennox when he made his debut for Celtic in March 1962. I was in the old left-half position that afternoon in the east end of Glasgow and I seem to recall Bobby receiving a smashed nose during his first game. We led 1–0 with ten minutes to go when Celtic equalised through Frank Brogan and then a tall, fresh-faced centre-half scored the winner shortly afterwards.
Billy McNeill timed his run from about twenty yards to absolute perfection and just took off to get his head to a corner-kick and send the ball past our keeper Pat Liney.
Dundee won the First Division title that season and we had some excellent players such as Alan Gilzean, Ian Ure, Bobby Wishart, Gordon Smith, Andy Penman, Alec Hamilton, Alan Cousin and the like. I made nine appearances and qualified for a medal.
However, as Big Billy’s star continued to rise at a meteoric rate, I was bedevilled by persistent knee injuries. I had two years at Falkirk and, following five operations, was forced to quit at the age of twenty-seven in 1967, the year my former Scotland Youth team-mate helped Celtic win the European Cup and every other competition they entered in a memorable season.
SCOTLAND THE RAVE…Billy McNeill in the dark blue of his country.
My managerial path led me to the Scotland international team, first as caretaker boss for games against Italy and Malta in 1993 and then as my own man. One of the most onerous and exacting tasks was putting a squad together, especially for World Cup and European Championship Finals.
You knew you would have to disappoint some players and, naturally, that was never anything to which I looked forward with any great enthusiasm. However, it was part of my job to select the best players for the task in front of us. I always tried to do this face to face instead of by phone, text or letter.
No such meeting would have taken place with Billy McNeill. At the peak of his powers, the Celtic captain would have been one of my first picks. Which country in the world could have afforded to overlook such quality? I note he was capped a mere twenty-nine times during his lengthy career.
If I had been around at the time, I think it is safe to say he would have added to that total.
I have a lot of admiration for that man, even if Billy never let me forget he thought I was ‘one of the dirtiest players in football’.
Mind you, he said it with a smile.