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 Paul McStay has his say.
I WAS only three weeks into my Celtic career when I witnessed at first hand the sheer professionalism and sportsmanship of Billy McNeill.
There was the utter delight from the manager at handing a seventeen-year-old rookie his first appearance in the Premier Division against a strong Aberdeen side.
It was a bold decision by the manager to demonstrate a lot of faith in my ability and he worked on my confidence on the lead-up to the crucial encounter at Pittodrie. He managed to take the pressure off and said all the right things to make sure I was well prepared for the game.
I went out to face the Dons on January 30 1982, my first-team league debut and a moment I had been striving to achieve since I had come through the ranks at Celtic Boys’ Club. This was my moment of truth, but Billy had stressed I had been selected on merit.
He had appreciated what he had seen and, in his judgement, I had a role to play in his plans this particular afternoon against Alex Ferguson’s team that was laced with international players such as goalkeeper Jim Leighton, defenders Willie Miller and Alex McLeish and midfielder Gordon Strachan.
Billy McNeill could have chosen a less exacting baptism for yours truly!
WONDERBHOY…Paul McStay was elevated to the Celtic first team as a teenager by Billy McNeill.
The pressure was on from the opening sixty seconds when our opponents took the lead before a few of the Celtic players had the opportunity to get a kick at the ball. John McMaster scored with a drive beyond Pat Bonner and I had the feeling we were in for a long afternoon.
We knew we had a massive job on our hands even before their early opener and, as positive-thinkers will always insist, it is better to lose a goal in the first minute than the last. At least, we knew we had eighty-nine minutes to make a response.
With Billy McNeill in the dug-out, there was no need to panic. He had set up his team that afternoon with four men in midfield with Dom Sullivan, Tommy Burns and Murdo MacLeod as my partners. I couldn’t have asked for better company.
As you would expect from any Billy McNeill side, the players rolled up their sleeves and immediately restarted the encounter with a gritty determination to get right back into the game. And we did that when George McCluskey netted a penalty-kick just before the half-hour mark.
It remained a stalemate until we hit a real purple patch midway through the second-half. We could feel we were in the ascendancy and, naturally enough, it is imperative in these situations to make your dominance count.
I recall Murdo MacLeod accepting a short free-kick from Dom Sullivan and firing in a shot that took a deflection off a defender, wrong-footed Jim Leighton and dropped into the net to give us the advantage.
My best moment was something like five minutes away when I scored on my first appearance. I’ll never forget that sensation of total elation. I received a ball in their box, made some space for myself and slotted a left-foot effort wide of the keeper. It sounds like a cliché, but it really was a dream come true.
As I ran towards the cheering Celtic fans in the crowd, all celebrating like crazy, my eye fell on the front row of the stand and I recognised a friend of mine. And then I noticed a whole row of his pals and relatives. What a feeling!
We won 3–1 and Billy McNeill, as you would expect, was beaming afterwards. I saw him go around the team, pat them on the back, make an observation or two. That was a happy coach journey back from the north-east, I can tell you that. That game is one I will never forget.
The previous week, I had made my bow in the top side in a Scottish Cup-tie against Queen of the South in the east end of Glasgow. We won 4–0 and, apart from the obvious recollections, there was another memorable moment when Danny McGrain scored his first goal in three years!
A COUPLE OF CHAMPIONS…Scott Brown and Paul McStay before the 2019 title presentation.
Things had been going fairly smoothly, but, as luck would have it, I would be destined to play my fourth game for the club back where my league outings had started only fourteen days earlier.
Celtic were drawn against Aberdeen in the early round of the Scottish Cup and we knew Alex Ferguson would be looking to exact revenge for our earlier win.
Celtic had a great tradition in the national competition, but had won it only once in the past five years – the 1–0 extra-time victory over Rangers in 1980 – and Billy McNeill and everyone else at Parkhead was determined to get back on track.
The draw had been unkind, but the manager reasoned if you were going to win the trophy you would have to overcome some top-class opposition along the way.
He set the team up in much the same way as had been successful in the league match a couple of weeks earlier.
On this occasion, though, John Hewitt, who would go to have ashort spell at Celtic, claimed the only goal of the game in the nineteenth minute. Near the end, Tom McAdam smacked an effort off the woodwork and we realised it wasn’t going to be our day.
To say I was disappointed would be a massive understatement. I was gutted. A fortnight earlier, I had been celebrating in the same away dressing room in the same ground and now we were out of the Scottish Cup. It was a lot for a young player to take in.
Very suddenly, you are aware of the highs and lows of the beautiful game and how quickly fortunes can change. I had witnessed Billy McNeill in triumph and this would be the first time I saw him in defeat.
How would he react to an adverse result? I thought he displayed the dignity befitting of such a Celtic legend. He would have been hurting, along with the rest of us, but he took time to congratulate Alex Ferguson and his players.
Billy McNeill had always stressed that Celtic players should think of themselves as winners. Second best was nowhere, as far as he was concerned.
So, at Pittodrie, where he had been manager for a season before returning to Parkhead in the summer of 1978, he had seen his team beaten and knocked out of a trophy.
He accepted that loss with the grace of a genuine sportsman.
However, Billy McNeill will always be remembered as a winner.