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CELTIC’S ONE CLUB MEN – No.1 BILLY McNEILL

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BILLY McNEILL, BOBBY LENNOX*, PAT BONNER and PAUL McSTAY – could all say CELTIC, CELTIC THAT’S THE TEAM FOR ME! Hugh Gallagher reviews Celtic’s one club men, starting tonight with Big Billy. We’ll cover the other three legends each night this week…

The ‘one club man’ is a dying breed in football, not just at Celtic. The unfortunate advent of agents means that these people only make money from unsettled players. A one club man makes no lucrative percentage deals for the agents, so they love to have unsettled players, who move on every couple of years. Even before the proliferation of agents into the game, Celtic had surprisingly few players who played for no other teams.pblux_r52UK_YU1VRCv0SVKu3KWJc5lENUIEcFdZAQs

BILLY  McNEILL was the only player from the Lisbon Lions who played nowhere else, *although BOBBY LENNOX could be allowed entry into that elite group; he left Celtic after almost 20 years, to go to Houston Hurricanes, but returned a few months later. The difference was that, during a 10 year spell, Celtic didn’t lose players who were at their peak.

Pat Crerand left Celtic in 1963 to join Manchester Utd at the peak of his career and, in January 1973, Lou Macari, at the peak of his career, also went to Old Trafford. However, in the 10 year period between Crerand and Macari’s transfers, no Celtic player left at their peak.

Players  who left were, for example, Lisbon Lions, like Jim Craig, Tommy Gemmell and Bobby Murdoch, who had given Celtic their best years and moved on. Others, like Charlie Gallagher and John McNamee moved as they weren’t guaranteed first team football.

Now, sadly, it is common for players to leave after a very short period of time. The only other ‘one club men’ Celtic have had in modern times are PAT  BONNER and PAUL McSTAY.

BILLY McNEILL is, without a shadow of a doubt, Celtic’s most successful captain. He was born in 1940 in Lanarkshire, an area that produced many Lisbon Lions. His background was partly Irish and partly Lithuanian. Billy joined Celtic as a teenager in 1957, having been recommended by Bobby Evans, a Celtic great. He made his debut on 23rd August 1958, in a 2-0 League Cup win over Clyde.GW554H800

The first of his many goals came against Ayr United in a 3-1 League victory on 4th March 1961. Billy’s first few years with Celtic were disappointing. By the end of season 1960-61, he’d picked up no trophies but hopes were high that an end to the drought was near.

Celtic had stormed through to the Scottish Cup Final, having scored 13 goals in the first 3 rounds. They looked impressive when dismantling Airdrie in a 4-0 semi final win. A disappointing season had seen Celtic finish 4th in the League, behind Third Lanark, with a dominant Rangers winning yet again.

However, the opponents in the final were Dunfermline, who’d finished 13th in the League and who’d looked far from impressive when they scraped through in the semi final replay with a 1-0 win over St Mirren. The final attracted well over 100,000 fans to Hampden and the game ended scoreless.

Celtic went into the replay as hot favourites. Pat Crerand, McNeill and John Clark formed a strong half back line and they’d 2 excellent full backs, Dunky MacKay and Willie O’Neill behind them. However, in spite of this, the game was a disaster, with Dunfermline running out 2-0 winners. Nobody realised at the time but Dunfermline’s manager- a certain Jock Stein – may have given the Pars a certain advantage!GW496H480

Celtic’s woes continued. Billy McNeill was elevated to captain but poor coaching and management difficulties meant that a talented group of young players lacked the necessary off field leadership. Another Scottish Cup final 2 years later saw Billy suffer more disappointment as Rangers humiliated Celtic 3-0 after a replay.

The following season saw Rangers win another Treble, although Celtic did enjoy a good European run. A run to the semi final of the 1963-64 European Cup Winners Cup saw Celtic defeat MTK Budapest 3-0 in the 1st leg of the Semi. After more than 5 years in the doldrums, Billy looked to be on the verge of leading his beloved club to European glory. However, poor Celtic tactics (dictated from the boardroom!) and some dreadful refereeing decisions in the away leg saw Celtic go down 4-0. All Celtic had to do was shut up shop but the Chairman decided that wasn’t the Celtic way.

As the 1964-65 season passed the halfway mark, the situation at Paradise was dire; Celtic had lost the League Cup Final 2-1 to Rangers, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup had seen us suffer a second round exit and we were nowhere in the League, in which Kilmarnock and Hearts were setting the pace. Celtic supporters’ patience had been pushed to  the limit – just as well there was no Celtic Quick News in those days!GW1024H1021

Then, finally the Board made THE decision. The decision which would transform McNeill’s career and transform the whole club into a European and world giant. Jock Stein, who had turned both Dunfermline, and Hibs into teams that played attractive, winning football, was appointed as our manager and the move played immediate dividends.

Celtic were going well in the Scottish Cup and reached the final, where Dunfermline were again the opposition. Twice Dunfermline took the lead and twice Bertie Auld equalised. As the game went on and only a few minutes remained, Celtic fans were nervy. A replay loomed but twice before in the 1960s, Celtic had gone to replays and had lost both.

Then Billy McNeill stepped up. A perfect in-swinger of a corner by Charlie Gallagher landed perfectly on McNeill’s head. The ball hit the net, Celtic had won their first trophy since October 1957’s 7-1 League Cup win over Rangers.GW768H960

Celtic were now at the gates of the most successful era in our history. For the next decade, Billy McNeill was a giant as Celtic took the football world by storm. Jock Stein’s first full season in charge saw McNeill finally get a League championship medal, Celtic ‘s first League success in 12 years.

A League Cup medal was also won and only a Kai Johansen goal in the last minute of the Scottish Cup replay prevented McNeill from becoming the first ever person to captain Celtic to the Treble. These Trebles are hard to win!

Like 1963-64, Celtic again reached the semi final of the European Cup Winners Cup; also, like 1963-64, Celtic were denied a place in the Final by highly dubious refereeing in the match against Liverpool at Anfield. The referee chopped off a Bobby Lennox goal for offside when the Celtic player was yards on. The Belgian referee apologized for his error after the match but Celtic were denied a place in a European final, which was at Hampden Park.

The time would be third time lucky for Celtic.

1966-67 saw Billy McNeil become the first British player to get his hands on the European Cup, on that never to be forgotten night in Lisbon, on 25th May 1967.

In the Quarter Final of the European Cup Celtic were up against Yugoslavia’s Vojvodina Novi Sad, later described by Jock Stein as Celtic’s toughest opponents in the all conquering 1966-67 season. With time running out and the teams locked at 1-1, Charlie Gallagher sent a perfect corner in and Billy McNeill did the same as 2 years earlier in the Scottish Cup Final, to send Celtic through to a semi final date with Dukla Prague. Legend has it that the roar from the Celtic support reached new levels that night when Cesar (as he was then) scored.GW872H768

Celtic won the home game against Prague 3-1 but were under severe pressure in the away game. The semi final had been a graveyard stage for British teams in the past, with Rangers, Manchester United and Dundee all falling at that hurdle. However, with Billy McNeill brilliantly marshalling his defence, Celtic held out against the accomplished Czechs to draw 0-0.

The domestic treble of 1966-67 helped make up for the disappointing near miss of the following season. Celtic continued to dominate in Scotland and to be a major force in Europe.

In 1967-68, Celtic were booted off the park by Racing Club from Argentina in the World Club Championship, losing a play off in ‘neutral’ Uruguay. In Celtic’s home game, at Hampden, McNeill scored Celtic’s only goal but there should have been many more that night.GW713H480

The following season saw Celtic win another domestic treble and have a good run in Europe, being squeezed out at the Quarter Final stage by star studded AC Milan, eventual winners. In a memorable Scottish Cup Final against Rangers, when Celtic cruised to a 4-0 win, McNeill scored Celtic’s first goal, heading in from a corner, in the first few minutes. The Rangers centre forward, who should have been marking Big Billy was never forgiven by his club for the loss of that goal. His name was Alex Ferguson and he would resume hostilities in the 1980s with McNeill as the two went head to head managing Celtic and Aberdeen respectively.

In 1969-70, Celtic reached the final of the European Cup again, although were beaten 2-1 by Feyenoord. In the semi final, Celtic were up against the ‘invincible’ (arrogant English media’s word) Leeds United in the ‘Final before the Final’.GW719H510

Celtic won home and away and the defence, under McNeill’s supreme organisation, kept strikers Allan Clarke, Mick Jones and Peter Lorimer quiet.

Sometimes, a player’s worth is not appreciated until he’s missing. Celtic lined up against Partick Thistle in the 1971 League Cup final and, of course, were red hot favourites. Billy McNeill was missing and, as soon as the match started, alarming gaps appeared in Celtic’s defence.

At half time Thistle had gone into a 4-0 lead and, in the end, won 4-1. Celtic put five past Thistle at Firhill in a League match just a few weeks later, with Billy McNeill back in his normal role.

Celtic went on to have a successful season, coming tantalisingly close to another European Cup final. After two 0-0 draws against Inter Milan, Celtic exited on penalties. A few weeks later, Celtic won another Scottish Cup, defeating an excellent Hibs team 6-2. McNeill, just like in 1965 and 1969, scored, giving him the distinction of being one of the few centre halves to have scored in 3 Scottish Cup finals.GW402H396

McNeill continued to lead Celtic to further glories. The end of 1973-74 season saw another European Cup semi final (where we were cynically booted off the park by Atletico Madrid), 9 consecutive leagues and another Double.

Earlier in the glory days, the half back line was Murdoch, McNeill and Clark; now it was Murray, McNeill and Connelly. Celtic were playing excellent football and, halfway through 1974-75, 10 in a row seemed guaranteed.

However, a late collapse saw Rangers pip Celtic, although there was the consolation of another Scottish Cup victory, with a 3-1 win over Airdrie.

Celtic fans were to receive a shattering blow at the end of the game, when Billy McNeill announced his retirement. Billy McNeill had given his entire 17 year career to Celtic. He played 789 games; nobody before him had ever reached that total and it’s a safe bet to say that the total will never be surpassed. Astonishingly, for a centre half, he scored 37 goals, spread across several tournaments- League Cup, Scottish Cup, League, European Cup Winners Cup, European Cup and World Club Championship. When McNeil hung up his boots, he’d given Celtic almost 2 decades  of loyal service and had picked up 9 (consecutive) Scottish League Championship medals, 7 Scottish Cups, 6 Scottish League Cups and, of course, the European Cup.  GW1012H753

As a player, Billy McNeill proved impossible to replace. Young Highlander, Roddy McDonald had been groomed as the replacement. However, he was young and raw; in addition, George Connelly, whose skill and experience would have been invaluable beside the young McDonald, had drifted out of football. His leadership was badly missed and, to compound the situation, Jock Stein was involved in a very serious car accident which caused him to miss the entire 1975-76 season. These two giants were missed and Rangers managed to get their first treble in 12 years.

NEXT UP – BOBBY LENNOX…

Written by Hugh Gallagher for CQN Magazine…

Billy McNeill with Davie Hay at the press launch for Caesar & The Assassin. Managing Celtic after Jock Stein. With Alex Gordon. Published by CQN in November 2014. A limited number of signed copies available now from www.cqnbookstore.com

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