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CELTIC AND THE HUNT FOR A MANAGER: BILLY McNEILL

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CELTIC’S hunt for Neil Lennon’s successor has proved to be a frustrating one for the Hoops support.

The quest for a new manager once again emphasised patience is a virtue when dealing with such delicate and crucially important decisions.

In another CQN EXCLUSIVE series, we turn the clock back on other vital appointments in the history of the club.

Here is an extract from author Alex Gordon’s book, ‘Celtic: The Awakening’, which looks at the arrival of Billy McNeill in 1978.

BILLY McNEILL, after quitting the game following the Scottish Cup Final success over Airdrie in 1975, had tired of working on his own business interests and was persuaded to become manager of Clyde on 1 April 1977.

A mere six weeks later, Jock Stein received a telephone call from Dick Donald, the Aberdeen chairman. He was looking for a successor to Ally MacLeod who had agreed to take over as manager of the Scotland international side. Stein nominated McNeill.

Within hours, the Pittodrie supremo, with Stein’s assistance, had made contact with McNeill and, only a few days later, the contract was signed, sealed and delivered. McNeill said, ‘I was actually planning ahead for the new season with Clyde. The club had just won promotion from the old Second Division and I realised we would need to strengthen the squad. I was scouring the free transfer lists, wondering, in fact, if I could get some youngsters in from Celtic.

‘Then I received the call from Dick Donald. The Clyde directors were great. They realised I couldn’t possibly turn down Aberdeen’s offer. They wished me all the best for the future. In fact, I was able to do them a wee favour shortly afterwards. I knew they needed money and, in a short space of time, I had taken a liking to one of their players. I offered them something like £30,000 for Stevie Archibald. Not a bad bit of business for all concerned when you consider Spurs paid £800,000 for him a couple of years later.’

McNeill made an immediate impact on Aberdeen. In his only season, he took the club to runners-up position in the league, on fifty-three points, two adrift of Rangers and seventeen ahead of Celtic. They also reached the Scottish Cup Final where they were beaten 2-1 by the Ibrox side. No silverware in the Pittodrie trophy cabinet, but Stein was impressed.

After advising the board to waste no time in moving for McNeill, they, in turn, left it to Stein to make contact. McNeill recalled, ‘I was at Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year dinner at the Macdonald Hotel in Newton Mearns. Actually, I was picking up the Manager of the Year award, so Big Jock knew I would definitely be in Glasgow that evening.

‘Jock took me aside at one stage and told me he wanted to have a word in private. He told me he would drive his Mercedes to a quiet spot just down the road and I was to meet him there in a few minutes. I was more than a little intrigued. I got into my car, drove to the nominated place and jumped into Jock’s car. He smiled and said, “I think it’s time you came back to Celtic Park”.

‘Just like that. There was no preamble. Before I could ask in which capacity, he quickly added, “Would you take the manager’s job?” I was a little stunned by the offer and I listened to him as he laid out the reasons why he thought me and Celtic were made for each other. As ever, he was very persuasive.’

McNeill has a remarkable confession to make. ‘I’ll tell you this, if the Celtic board had approached me to take the job instead of Jock I would have rejected it. I wouldn’t have gone back.

‘My wife Liz and I were extremely happy with our new environment in Aberdeen. We had a lovely home in Stonehaven, we had made new friends, the board were great to work with, especially Dick Donald, I had good players and we were getting good results. It was the perfect setting. But I couldn’t bring myself to say no to Big Jock. I just couldn’t face turning him down.

‘He had been such a huge influence in my life as well as my career. If it hadn’t been for Jock I would never have returned to Celtic.’ Dick Donald, too emotional over his manager’s departure, told those arranging a farewell party for McNeill that he would not be in attendance.

Instead, he passed on a message, ‘Tell Billy, thanks for everything, but tell him I don’t think he’ll enjoy working with that board as much as he did with this one.’

On April 20 1978 Celtic held another meeting at the North British Hotel in Glasgow. A section of the minutes of the get-together make interesting reading. ‘In the view of Mr. Stein’s long and valued service with the club, it was agreed that at the time a new manager was appointed, Mr.Stein be offered an executive directorship with the club as recognition and compensation by the club for these services. Mr.Stein indicated that he would be very pleased to accept such a directorship.’

On the surface, it appeared to be a seamless changeover. Stein admitted, ‘I am more than pleased to be going on the board at Parkhead.’ A week or so later, the picture changed dramatically when it was revealed exactly what his role would entail while overseeing a new commercial enterprise at the club.

He could hardly comprehend what the board were proposing. Stein, the manager who won twenty-five trophies at Celtic including making them the best team in Europe in 1967, was being asked to take over an area dealing with a new lottery venture. Stein told friends, ‘You’ll never believe what they want me to do – they want me to sell pools tickets!’

A proud man, Stein never did agree to that ‘offer’. Wily to the last, however, he did not go public with his intention to leave the club. Celtic were due to play Liverpool in his Testimonial Match at the beginning of August and Stein thought it better to remain silent. A crowd of 60,000 rolled into Celtic Park, generating something in the region of £80,000 for the club’s former manager.

The following day, Stein met Leeds United chairman Manny Cussins and agreed to become team boss of the Elland Road outfit. He remained in the post for only forty-four days, involved in only ten games, before coming back to take over as international boss in October when Ally MacLeod was finally sacked in the aftermath of a dreadful World Cup Finals performance in Argentina in 1978.

Stein would remain in the post for just under seven years before his untimely death at the end of a World Cup-tie in Wales on 25 September 1985. He was sixty-three-years-old. A giant passed away that evening in Cardiff.

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