BILLY McNEILL was clearly startled. ‘Are you joking?’ he asked me. ‘Are you serious?’
It was July 1991 and Billy had been sacked as Celtic manager two months earlier following the completion of a traumatic and trophyless season. The Parkhead side simply could not compete with big-spending Rangers, so the board did the natural thing and handed their team boss his P45.
Celtic, back then, were nicknamed ‘The Titanic’ by the press because the club had so many leaks. As Sports Editor of the Sunday Mail, I could hardly complain about having knowledge of what was happening at the very heart of the inner sanctum of the club. I saw that as part of my job to keep readers of the newspaper informed of what was happening out there on the mean streets; or, more accurately, inside the Celtic boardroom.
The jungle drums (no pun intended) had been beating long and loud about Billy’s future at the club. In truth, he was treated appallingly. I knew the board was deliberately not keeping him informed about their closed-door meetings and that, inevitably, will bring about a breakdown in communication and trust between the manager and his chairman. It’s a recipe for disaster. And so it proved.
On the Saturday evening of December 15 1990, I received a telephone call at the Sports Desk. It was from a prominent member of the board. Celtic had just lost 2-1 to Dunfermline in Glasgow and I was told, ‘It’s not looking good for Billy.’ The individual didn’t have to elaborate. I got the drift that a change of manager at Celtic was imminent. The club had appointed Terry Cassidy as their first-ever Chief Executive in December 1990 and he was an abrasive, outspoken character who, quite clearly on the occasions I had met him, had no fondness for Billy McNeill. He told me so on several occasions. I relayed his thoughts to the manager. He wasn’t surprised. The charmless Cassidy was sacked in October 1992 after a disastrous spell at the club. If Liam Brady ever allows me to write his autobiography about his life and times as Celtic manager, I can tell you Cassidy will require a chapter to himself. Maybe two.
Okay, so I’m sitting at the Sports Desk on a bleak December evening, traces of snow beginning to form on the pavements of Glasgow, and the first edition of the newspaper is heading for airts and pairts of the country. It’s a breaking story from an impeccable source and I know it is back page splash material. I have never hidden my respect for Billy McNeill and what he achieved for Celtic as a player and as a manager. I also liked the guy as a damn fine human being. It was never a chore to spend some time in the company of this witty, clever bloke.
I telephoned him at his home in Pollokshields. I wouldn’t name my source – I never did and I also realised Billy would never push me to reveal an identity – but I had to tell the Celtic manager his job was on the line. As I expected, he took the news with his usual poise although I realised he must have been hurting like hell at that moment. I didn’t want him picking up his Sunday Mail from the doormat the following morning (I was aware he bought our newspaper) and being slammed with the news he was about to be sacked. There has got to be better ways of discovering you are about to lose the job you love. I did a new lay-out for the back page of the Sunday Mail and wrote the headline, ‘BILLY ON THE BRINK’.
There are occasions when you dislike your chosen profession and, undoubtedly, this was one of them. It was a genuine, exclusive story and, without attempting to sound like one of those irritating ‘I’m-so-important’ blowhards, I knew full well I had a responsibility to the person who shelled over hard-earned cash for their favourite Sunday newspaper. The machine room replated and we ran the story from the first edition onwards. It would be reasonable to estimate almost 2.5million Scots would have read that news with their tea and toast the following morning.
After that, it was only a matter of time. On Wednesday, May 22 1991 – only eleven days after Celtic’s 3-2 win over St.Johnstone to bring the curtain down on an underwhelming campaign – an emergency board meeting had been called at 10am at Celtic Park. Billy was informed of the high level pow-wow by Cassidy as he was leaving the ground the previous day.
‘Of course, I knew what was coming,’ said Billy. ‘I telephoned my lawyer and he advised me to get in touch with my accountant, Frank Walker. He reckoned it would be more beneficial to have a money man sitting beside me when the axe fell. As it happened, the meeting was very brief. Chairman Jack McGinn expressed “deep regret” about the “painful” decision and that was that. Jack also talked about a financial settlement over the course of the next few days. You would have thought the board would have had plenty of time to put that package together over the months of speculation. I wasn’t having any of it. I told them, “I’m not leaving until we settle it here and now.” It was my turn to take them by surprise. I meant it, though. I was not going through that door until I was satisfied with the pay-off.’
The board had already issued a press statement saying Billy McNeill had left the club. The board detested the word ‘sacked’; people always parted company with Celtic by ‘mutual consent’. It seemed a very genteel way of saying some poor unfortunate has just seen his world collapse around his ears. Four years before Billy, Davie Hay was in the same situation. The club wanted him to sign a declaration that he had resigned. Davie, politely, of course, told them to get lost. He told me, ‘I was never going to have anyone believe I would ever dream of quitting Celtic. If they wanted to fire me, they were going to have to come out and say so. Eventually, they saw I would never change my mind and, technically, the history books will show I was the first manager to be sacked by the club; apparently, everyone else had quit.’
On that gloriously sunny afternoon in May, months away from the heavily-swollen skies of December when I first took the call from my Celtic mole that Billy was heading for the firing squad, the board had backed itself into a corner. The press had been alerted and reporters, camera crews and radio stations were setting up in the car park outside the front door of Celtic Park. Billy forced their hand. Swiftly, they put together a settlement, Billy and his accountant poured over it and only when they were satisfied did the newly-fired Celtic manager agree that his time at the club, where he walked in as a teenager in 1957 and won a landslide of trophies, medals and personal honours, was at an end.
Billy, straight-backed as ever, chest thrust forward, went to meet the journalists and supporters at the front door. The man obviously knew his gallows humour. He expressed surprise, ‘What? No guillotine?’ That was for the cameras. He told me he broke down in tears when he got home.
So, a couple of months later, I have Billy McNeill on the other end of the telephone line. ‘Are you joking?’ he repeated.
‘Deadly serious,’ I said. ‘I would like you to join the Sunday Mail.’
Billy, I knew, was interested in the media. He had an inquisitive mind and would continually ask newspapermen about their job. He would sit down with them on away European trips and enquire about their calling. One of his particular favourites was our mutual friend Alex Cameron. Chiefy had co-authored Billy’s excellent autobiography ‘BACK TO PARADISE’ in 1988. Jim Black followed up with the equally-superb ‘HAIL CESAR’ in 2004. Billy was always comfortable around hacks and I thought he might be able to contribute something to the Sunday Mail.
I had allowed the dust to settle. Billy had told me he was uncertain of his next move. Did he want to go straight back to mainstream management? I can tell you he could have stepped into Dundee’s dug-out only a week or so after vacating the premises at Celtic. The Dens Park secretary, Ian Gellatly, got in touch with Billy and asked him to think about it. Billy admitted to me he spent a fairly sleepless night before telephoning the Dundee official the following day to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’
So, armed with that knowledge and the fact I was aware Billy, at the age of fifty-one, was not one to spend all his time pruning the roses, I invited him out for a relaxed lunch at the Pavarotti Trattoria restaurant in Cambridge Street just opposite Glasgow’s Thistle Hotel. Again, the sun was splitting the sky as I walked up from the Sunday Mail offices at Anderston Quay (I was thirty-nine and must have been fit back then). I realised Billy was interested, but could we afford him? We both arrived at the Italian eaterie at the same time and I was delighted to see the smile had returned to his face. We took a table in the corner and had a wee natter before we got down to discussing business matters. There had been a story in that day’s papers about some Rangers fans complaining about a pole restricting their view at Ibrox. Billy seized upon it. ‘Glad to see the buggers got something wrong.’
We chatted, ate a sumptuous meal and had a few Peroni lagers. I outlined my thoughts to the legendary sportsman. I wanted him to sit side-saddle with one our reporters, Don Morrison, Dixon Blackstock or David Leggat, and give his verdict on the big match of the day. There was also scope for a column on his views on something that was topical during the week. He looked happy enough with that. We shook on it and I underlined one thing. As soon as he wanted to end the arrangement and go back into football there would be no problem. This was no binding contract, no Philadelphia lawyers were required. I was happy, Billy was satisfied and there only remained the little matter of ordering up some celebratory bottle, or two, of Pavarotti’s finest white wine.
I was walking back to the office that beautiful afternoon when something struck me. Billy and I had spent the best part of three hours blethering away, but I hadn’t got round to financial matters. He never even asked what we were prepared to pay for his expert views every week. We had shaken hands, Billy had agreed to come down to the office later in the week and I would set up an advert for Radio Clyde to announce ‘the Sunday Mail’s big-name signing for the new season.’ No talk, though, of financial recompense. The bean-counters at the newspaper had given me a ball-park figure to play around with. I didn’t even get the opportunity to put it on the table. I went back to the office and asked for £100 more or the deal was off. ‘Billy’s a tough negotiator,’ I told them. Billy got the extra cash, I’m happy to say.
Immediately, I was struck by the professionalism of the guy. We had organised the Radio Clyde advert and Billy came into our office, made the call to the commercial radio station, was given the green light and said, ‘Hello, this is Billy McNeill. Read my exclusive, hard-hitting big match verdicts only in the Sunday Mail every week. It’s the column no sports fan will want to miss.’ There was a bit more to those words, but Billy did it in one take. As bright as ever, he asked me about his first assignment; which match had been selected for him to sit in with a reporter and give his forthright analysis?
‘Can’t you guess?’ I asked.
‘I’m going to Ibrox, ain’t I?’ he smiled.
‘Got it in one,’ I replied.
Rangers were due to launch the new season with a home game against St.Johnstone on August 10 1991. As champions, the unfurling of the flag was due before the kick-off and there would be usual songs of delight and joy from the Rangers support. Ironically, the last time Billy had seen the Perth side in action had been his final game in the Celtic dug-out almost three months earlier. The following day, I used a huge picture of Billy and Don Morrison on the back page of the Sunday Mail and our ‘big-name signing’ was even game enough to hold up the Rangers programme as though he was reading it. A superb bit of improvisation. He may have wanted to be anywhere else on the planet that afternoon, but now he was there he was going to play the part. Impeccably, as usual.
Billy was with us for a full season and did a splendid job. I had no doubt he could have made a career in the inky trade if he hadn’t been such an accomplished footballer. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work alongside him.
Football’s gain was journalism’s loss.