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CELTIC’S NEARLY MEN – WILLIE O’NEILL

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No 5 – WILLIE O’NEILL

Several Celtic players have been unlucky enough to have played at a time when, in spite of great skill and commitment, they failed to establish themselves as first team regulars. Often, they had competition, in their position, from formidable teammates; in other cases, they were just unlucky. Many of these players played during the 1960s. Hugh Gallagher looks back to this period and profiles some of the players who fall into the Nearly Men category and concludes by talking about how valuable they’d be to today’s Celtic. We’ve already features John McNamee, Charlie Gallagher, Frank Brogan and John Cushley. Today we take a look at Willie O’Neill…

WILLIE O’NEILL

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Willie O’Neill, like Joe McBride, could have considered himself very unlucky not to have played in Lisbon. A Celtic man, through and through, he joined Celtic as a teenager in the late 1950s, making his debut in the Scottish Cup Final replay of 1961, when Jock Stein’s Dunfermline beat Celtic 2-0.

His main problem throughout his career was that he was up against quality players for the full back positions. Initially, it was Duncan McKay and Jim Kennedy, then Ian Young and Tommy Gemmell and, later, Jim Craig. At the start of the 1966-67 season, he established himself at left back, with Tommy Gemmell playing on the other side.

He played in the European Cup victories over Nantes and Zurich. In the first of Celtic’s trophies during that all conquering season, he came to Celtic’s rescue in the League Cup Final win over Rangers. With Celtic leading 1-0, due to a Lennox goal, a minor collision between Ronnie Simpson and  Rangers’ Alex Smith left the ball drifting towards an empty net. Willie O’Neill appeared and booted the ball clear with only a few centimetres to spare.

He played 32 games that season, which was more than Jim Craig. However, one of Celtic few defeats that season came on the last day of 1966, a 3-2 league loss to Dundee United and Willie lost his place to Jim Craig after that.

Willie was an excellent defensive full back but his misfortune that he was making his breakthrough at a time when more was being demanded of full backs. For Jock Stein, Craig’s more attacking, overlapping game was more appealing.

Willie did play in Alfredo di Stefano’s testimonial when Celtic beat Real Madrid 1-0, shortly after Lisbon. At the start of the 1968-69, he dislodged Jim Craig but lost his place again following the 2-0 defeat to St Etienne in the1st leg of the 1st Round of the European Cup. Willie O’Neill left Celtic in 1969 to join Carlisle, having played 86 games for Celtic. He retired 2 years later, due to an ankle injury. However, he later admitted that, after leaving his beloved Celtic, his heart was never really in it. He worked as a barman in famous Celtic pub, ‘Bairds’ Bar’. Sadly, he passed away 4 years ago.

Many more could be added to this short list. However, I’m sure Celtic fans would be delirious if we now had an accomplished central defender like John Cushley, a teak tough John McNamee beside him, a tough,intelligent defensive full back like Willie O’Neill, a silky midfielder like Charlie Gallagher and a speedy, direct goal scoring winger like Frank Brogan. Five excellent players and five men who were lifelong Celtic fans.

CELTIC’S NEARLY MEN was written for CQN Magazine by Hugh Gallagher.

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