CQN continues its EXCLUSIVE series to salute Celtic’s Greatest-Ever skipper Billy McNeill.
Author Alex Gordon, who has had fifteen Celtic books published, including ‘Caesar and The Assassin‘ and ‘Lisbon Lions: The 40th Anniversary Celebration‘, interviewed many of the club legend’s team-mates and opponents for his tribute tome, ‘In Praise of Caesar‘, which was published in 2018.
Over the next week or so, CQN will publish a selection of edited memories. Today Bobby Lennox has his say.
BILLY McNEILL was my hero. When you looked around the Celtic dressing room on matchday and you saw Big Billy, stripped and ready for action, you instinctively knew you had a good chance of winning.
That was how important I rated our skipper, centre-half and onfield inspiration.
I was a foreigner at Parkhead – the only player in the Lisbon Lions who had been born outwith a thirty-yard radius of the club’s ground. I was from that far-off place called Saltcoats and I was mixing with lads born in Bellshill, in Billy’s case, or Glasgow, such as Ronnie Simpson, Jim Craig, Bertie Auld, Stevie Chalmers, or Uddingston, birthplace of my wee pal Jimmy Johnstone.
Tommy Gemmell was born and reared in Craigneuk while Willie Wallace was from Kirkintilloch. Bobby Murdoch hailed from Rutherglen, well within walking distance of Celtic Park. Me? I was from a place Wee Bertie was convinced no-one actually lived, but just visited on their holidays.
I should have known Billy and I would click from my very first appearance in the Celtic first team against a very good Dundee side in a league game at Parkhead on Saturday, March 3 1963. We were being held 1–1 with only five minutes to go when Billy headed in the winner.
HAMPDEN HEROES…Billy McNeill and Bobby Lennox lead their Celtic team-mates on a lap of honour after the 3-1 Scottish Cup Final win over Airdrie in 1975.
It was the first time I had ever experienced his exploits in the air at first hand and I never grew tired of them. Celtic’s basic wage wasn’t great back then, but the bonuses certainly helped boost it. I wasn’t thinking of cash, though, as Billy rose above a posse of Dens Park players to get his head to a corner-kick and send the ball past their keeper, Pat Liney. I was so delighted to have marked my debut with a win.
It would be just over two years later until Celtic won their first trophy in eight years. As a fan of the club, that was a lifetime, believe me. Celtic had been in the doldrums and teams such as Rangers, Kilmarnock, Hearts, Dundee and Dunfermline appeared to be way ahead of us.
It was the Fifers who provided the opposition when we made our way to the Scottish Cup Final in April 1965. Jock Stein had just arrived as manager and things were already changing. But no-one could argue Dunfermline were worthy favourites to win the silverware that afternoon.
They were miles ahead of us in the league and Celtic had picked up the tag as Hampden losers after failing in replays in the Final against the team from East End Park in 1961 and Rangers two years later. Many of our critics questioned our big-game mentality.
We trailed twice and came back twice with goals from Bertie Auld. And, it’s well-etched in Celtic folklore now, Billy bulleted in the winner with a powerful header from a Charlie Gallagher left-wing corner-kick.
GOAL-DEN BHOY…Billy McNeill rises above Bobby Lennox to thump in the winning header in the 3-2 triumph over Dunfermline in 1965.
Every newspaper the following day had a huge photograph of our captain’s goal with a banner headline. One paper called it ‘BILLY’S BUMPER’ and another labelled it ‘BILLY’S BEAUTY’.
The image is of Billy rising above yours truly to knock the ball into the net with the Dunfermline defence, thankfully, in a bit of disarray. Billy told me he didn’t like that image.
“Why?” I asked innocently.
“You’re in it,” he answered with a straight face.
That victory meant so much to Celtic. With Jock Stein in charge, we turned a massive corner. Suddenly, we had self-belief. We could think of ourselves as winners. We were worthy opponents for anyone.
Billy played his role perfectly. He slotted in to what Celtic Football Club had become. And he looked the part for a start. Tall, handsome and always immaculate, he became the players’ spokesman. No matter where we went in the world, he was the guy who was to the forefront.
He just seemed to be a natural leader and the mantle sat easily on him.