‘I BELIEVE YOU’RE LOOKING FOR ME?’ BIRTHDAY BOY SIR ALEX AND THE CELTIC AUTHOR

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SIR ALEX FERGUSON celebrates his 80th birthday today and CQN would like to add our congratulations to the Manchester United legend.

The Scot’s achievements at Old Trafford have been simply phenomenal with THIRTY-EIGHT trophies including two Champion League triumphs and 13 Premier League titles.

The Glaswegian has more than earned his place in Football’s Hall of Fame.

Ferguson may have played for two years at the club’s arch rivals Rangers, but he has never hidden his admiration for Celtic and insists legendary Hoops manager Jock Stein was his inspiration.

TWO OF A KIND…Alex Ferguson with Jock Stein on Scotland international duty.

The pair even joined up for a spell when Big Jock was the Scotland international boss before his sad passing on September 10 1985 with the United gaffer by his side after the nation had drawn 1-1 with Wales in Cardiff to set up a two-legged World Cup play-off against Australia.

Fergie took charge during the Mexico Finals after leading the Scots to victory over the Aussies, 2-0 at Hampden where Frank McAvennie scored one of the goals, and a scoreless second leg in Melbourne.

Billy McNeill was also a close friend of the iconic gaffer although they were fierce rivals on the football pitch.

Author Alex Gordon spoke to Sir Alex for his tribute book to Celtic’s legendary skipper, ‘In Praise of Caesar’, which was published in 2018.

The writer, whose has had fifteen Celtic books published, including his latest, ’50 Flags Plus One’, recalled receiving a phone call from the football great.

Alex told CQN: “I had been looking for the Manchester United great who was on my list of individuals I wanted to interview for Billy’s book.

“I had a list of over forty names of people associated with Big Billy during his fabulous career and I spoke to the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law, Brendan Rodgers, Gordon Strachan, Danny McGrain, Roy Aitken, Paul McStay, Davie Hay, Craig Brown and all the existing Lisbon Lions, Bertie Auld, Jim Craig, John Clark, Willie Wallace and Bobby Lennox.

“The interviews were coming thick and fast as the book came together.

“I knew Billy and Fergie had been very close which may have surprised a few who had witnessed them in opposition when they went head to head in Old Firm duels.

“I was also aware Fergie was a busy man and a much sought-after individual. I just couldn’t pin him down and I was running out of time.

READ ALL ABOUT IT…a young Alex Ferguson catches up with his hat-trick against Rangers for St Johnstone in December 1963 – almost four years before his move to Ibrox.

“Then, completely out of the blue, I received a call at home one afternoon. I picked up the receiver and a voice asked: ‘I believe you’re looking for me?’

“I recognised the dulcit tones of Sir Alex right away. He already knew why he had been on my wanted list. ‘I’ve got a spare hour if you want to chat,’ he said.

“We did the interview there and then. I do believe it went into extra-time, we were never going to cover Sir Alex’s memories of his old mate in sixty minutes.”

Today, on Fergie’s birthday on a quiet Hogmanay as the world awaits the arrival of 2022, CQN are delighted to present an edited extract of the chapter in the Billy McNeill tribute book, In Praise of Caesar’.

SIR ALEX FERGUSON

BILLY McNEILL hated playing against me. He could never cope with skilful centre-forwards. I faced the Celtic skipper with five different teams during my playing career: St Johnstone, Dunfermline, Rangers, Falkirk and Ayr United.

Billy is on record as saying I ‘made use of my flailing elbows to great effect’. You could say I played to my strengths!

I loved playing against Billy McNeill. We had a few good ding-dongs over the years, but let me say here and now Big Billy was scrupulously clean. In my playing days, there were at least half-a-dozen brutal defenders who wanted to boot you off the park. They wouldn’t have lost a wink of sleep if they had put you in hospital with a broken leg.

Billy, on the other hand, was the fairest of them all. Don’t get me wrong, he could be a fierce competitor, but everything was done within the laws of the game. So, when we were in direct competition, we could roll up our sleeves and get at it.

It was a man’s game, after all. But I could go into challenges with Billy safe in the knowledge I wouldn’t be visiting the A&E department at some hospital later that day.

GRAND FINALE…Alex Ferguson and Billy McNeill in a race for the ball in Celtic’s 4-0 Scottish Cup silverware victory in 1969 – the Rangers player’s last game for the Ibrox club.

Sometimes you wonder how futures would have progressed if you received a different bounce of the ball. Billy McNeill was the man who started Celtic on their silverware trail under the great Jock Stein when he headed in the winner against Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup Final at Hampden in 1965.

I was the Fife club’s top goalscorer that season and I would have been Billy’s direct opponent if I had been playing. Manager Willie Cunningham dropped me for that game and I was far from happy with his decision. That’s putting it mildly. I had missed a late chance against St Johnstone in the previous game that might have won the league championship for the East End Park outfit. Clearly, Cunningham thought I should have scored and I’m convinced that can be the only reason I sat in the Hampden stand that day.

It was 2–2 with the clock ticking down when Charlie Gallagher flighted over the left-wing corner-kick and Billy simply rose to thump in a header and Celtic had won their first trophy in eight years. Don’t get the notion I am saying I could have done something to stop Billy getting in that header.

The Celtic man was the finest header of a ball I have ever seen, second to none. He was a big fella, of course, but his timing was close to immaculate. It was rare for anyone to get the better of him in an aerial duel. Maybe our keeper, Jim Herriot, could have come for the cross on that occasion, but if anyone deserved to score a Cup winner for Celtic back then it was Billy McNeill.

GLORY BHOY…Billy McNeill rises to the occasion to thump in the memorable header for Celtic’s winner in the 3-2 victory over Dunfermline in the 1965 Scottish Cup Final. Bobby Lennox gets a great view. 

Four years after that game, Billy netted another goal in a Scottish Cup Final and it got me the boot from Rangers. I had moved to Ibrox for £65,000, a Scottish record transfer fee at the time, in the summer of 1967 as the Govan side prepared a determined assault on the newly-crowned European champions.

As well as yours truly, they brought in Morton goalkeeper Erik Sorensen, Dundee inside-forward Andy Penman and Dundee United winger Orjan Persson.

We beat Celtic 1–0 at Ibrox in September with the Swede Persson claiming the goal and we managed a 2–2 draw at Parkhead in January 1968, but Celtic still won the league. They knocked us out of the League Cup in that campaign – mainly because one of our players didn’t know the laws of the game.

THE BIG SHOT…Tommy Gemmell blasts an unstoppable penalty-kick past Rangers keeper Erik Sorensen in a League Cup clash at Ibrox.

We were drawn in a four-team group section – Dundee United and Aberdeen were in with us – and our first Old Firm encounter had ended 1–1 at Ibrox. Tommy Gemmell fairly blasted in a penalty-kick to give Big Jock’s men the lead and then Andy Penman saw his spot-kick saved by Ronnie Simpson. Penman atoned somewhat when he hit a spectacular equaliser a couple of minutes from time.

A week later, we were at Parkhead and we were within fourteen minutes of a famous triumph: until we were awarded a penalty-kick. Willie Henderson had given us an early lead in front of an all-ticket crowd of 75,000. The place was heaving. There were only fourteen minutes left to play when I beat Big Billy to knock the ball into the path of our wee outside-right.

With Billy out of position, his defensive sidekick John Clark had to come across to confront Henderson. He mistimed his tackle and sent Wee Willie sprawling. Referee Tiny Wharton pointed to the spot immediately. What were the odds of Celtic coming back if we had gone two goals ahead with less than quarter-of-an-hour to play?

I’M INNOCENT…Alex Ferguson pleads his case to Tommy Gemmell and Bobby Murdoch as Billy McNeill is on his knees after receiving a blow.

Following Penman’s failure the previous week, Kai Johansen stepped up to take the award. He strode forward and clattered the inside of the crossbar with his effort. That was bad, but it got worse. The ball bounced down and spun back into play. The Danish right-back then raced forward and got his head to the ball from the rebound.

An obvious free-kick because you aren’t allowed to touch the ball twice from a penalty without the opposition intervening. I was immediately behind Kai and if he had left the ball I would surely have scored with Ronnie Simpson out of position. Instead, he decided to have another go. I was raging. I wondered if the laws of the game were different in Denmark.

The League Cup was the first trophy up for grabs in my debut season at the club and I was determined to get off to a winning start. My mood wasn’t eased when Celtic then scored three goals in the remaining minutes to dump us out of the competition. If I thought that had been unfair, it was nothing to the way I felt after the 1969 Scottish Cup Final against Billy McNeill and Celtic

I had scored goals against Jock Stein’s team for St Johnstone and Dunfermline, but just couldn’t get off the mark in the light blue of my boyhood favourites, my local team as I grew up in Govan. I hoped for a change of fortune when we rolled up at the national stadium on a sunny April afternoon four years after I had been denied a Cup Final appearance by the Dunfermline gaffer.

NO WAY THROUGH…Alex Ferguson is denied by Celtic’s sprightly veteran keeper Ronnie Simpson.

Rangers had hit some excellent form on the way to Hampden and had turned over a very good Aberdeen side 6–1 in the semi-final. We went into the game as favourites in a lot of people’s reckoning. Celtic had beaten us twice in the League Cup section back in August, but Rangers had won both league encounters.

We triumphed 4–2 at Parkhead in the opening meeting and it was our opponents’ first league defeat in over thirty games. And we took two more points off them in the New Year game at our place with a John Greig penalty-kick after Billy McNeill was adjudged to have handled a Willie Henderson shot on the hour mark.

Colin Stein, who overtook my record fee when he arrived from Hibs in November 1968 for £100,000, had been my main rival for the No.9 shirt. However, I knew I would be facing Billy McNeill that afternoon with Stein suspended. You can’t help but wonder what might have happened if he had been free to be selected.

In any case, manager Davie White, who had taken over from the man who bought me, Scot Symon, told me I was in and would lead the line. In the countdown to Hampden, we were discussing Big Billy’s prowess in the air as we talked tactics and how to deal with his menace. Everybody knew the threat he posed when he came forward for set-pieces, so how were we going to attempt to cope with it?

READ ALL ABOUT IT…author Alex Gordon’s latest Celtic book which celebrates 51 Championship victories.

Ronnie McKinnon was our centre-half, but he admitted he wasn’t comfortable in a one-on-one confrontation with the Celtic skipper. Who was? In the end, it was decided I would man-mark Billy at the deadball situations. I was good enough in the air, but Billy McNeill was easily the best I’ve ever played against or witnessed.

I took the kick-off in the Cup Final and exactly two minutes and twenty seconds later, I was required to re-enact the movement.

As luck would have it, Celtic were awarded an early left-wing corner-kick after Ronnie McKinnon had conceded as Bobby Lennox chased a throw-in from Stevie Chalmers. Lennox elected to take the kick and flighted it high into the box.

I had seen Billy coming forward as he always did in these situations and he took up his usual position that allowed him a run at the ball when it dropped around the penalty spot. I was ready to get in position to make sure he did not get a clear header.

HEADMASTER…Billy McNeill scores the opening goal in the Hoops’ 4-0 Scottish Cup Final in 1969 – ands there’s no sign of Alex Ferguson!

As the ball arced into the danger zone, Billy made his move. I was ready to make my challenge, but Willie Wallace ran across me at that moment and blocked me off. Billy was allowed a free header and he rarely passed up those gifts. I watched in frustration as he made perfect contact with the ball and sent a header gliding in at goalkeeper Norrie Martin’s right-hand post.

What a disaster for us. The first-half descended into chaos as we virtually presented Celtic with two more goals, taken by Bobby Lennox and George Connelly, and Stevie Chalmers completed our misery with the fourth after the interval. Rangers had gone into that game with so much hope, but, ninety minutes later, we had been shredded.

I should have anticipated what happened next. I was blamed for the crucial first goal. Billy later publicly said it was unfair I had been made a scapegoat. He made the point I was a centre-forward and did my best work at the other end of the pitch.

Billy also asked, ‘Where was their centre-half Ronnie McKinnon when I scored?’ Kind words from a good opponent, but no-one at Ibrox was listening. The finger of guilt pointed at yours truly and my two years at Rangers were over.

Aye, it’s a fickle old game, football.

 

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