The summer we lost Billy McNeill & Champagne Charlie


As it’s the international break and all the big leagues aren’t playing we thought we’d give you an extract from CQN’s excellent book Caesar & The Assassin to read. If you would like to order a SIGNED copy at a discounted price please click on the book image below or see end of the feature…


It was a pleasant evening as sunshine bathed the small Irish town of Baleybofey in County Donegal. Around ten thousand excited fans squeezed into Finn Park, many of the supporters sitting on the touchline a few feet from the pitch. Finn Harps were playing host to mighty Celtic on Wednesday May 18, 1983 in a historic meeting of the teams. It was to be a memorable evening in more ways than one.

No-one in the trim, compact football ground realised they were uniquely placed to view the sun eventually going down on two legendary Celts. They were witnessing what would transpire to be Billy McNeill’s last engagement as Celtic manager for four years. They were also observing Charlie Nicholas’ final game as a player before abdicating to Arsenal a month later. Like McNeill, of course, he would return to Parkhead after a seven-year absence. Ironically, Nicholas signed off with a goal – his fifty-third of the season – in a 4-0 win over the Irish part-timers in a good-natured friendly.

However, amidst the sprinkling from the bright shafts of light, there was a lot more happening in the dark shadows off the pitch than on it in that cosy little neuk in Southern Ireland.

Billy McNeill vividly outlined the reasons for moving to pastures new in his excellent autobiography, ‘Back to Paradise’, which was published in Celtic’s Centenary Year of 1988.

The skipper of the Lisbon Lions revealed, ‘I never expected to leave the club. But a personality clash between myself and the late Desmond White, the club chairman, mysteriously built up. I am not saying I was right in everything, but I am still baffled and regretful that it reached such an extent that I had to leave. I am discussing this now as a matter of record. It would be dishonest in an autobiography to dodge an issue which was such an important milestone in my career. Happily, the situation has been resolved  in the manner I always hoped it would be – by me returning to the club which has been such an important part of my life. The fact that I have been able to do so says much for the magnanimity and mature good sense of the directors.

‘The story of what turned out to be my departure from Celtic began when I played in the first Glasgow Open Golf Championship at Haggs Castle. I was pleased at how good the tournament was for Glasgow which was my “adopted” city because, of course, I was born in Bellshill. Coming off the course, I was asked unexpectedly by a group of reporters about a move to Manchester City. The truth was I had been sounded out quietly, but had brushed the question aside without expressing any interest. So, I was taken aback that the Press had got wind of a private, and at that stage not too serious approach, although I could see it was to City’s advantage to have it in the papers that they were enquiring about me.

‘Two days later, on a Monday, I attended a meeting at Mr White’s office in Bath Street. Most of the directors were also present. I went naively, thinking there was no major problem and certainly none which would lead to me leaving Parkhead. I had refused to comment on the City approach to the papers and was, therefore, shocked to see some of the headlines which included this one: “McNEILL DEMANDS A WAGE INCREASE.” I never demanded anything. What I had done was ask the chairman twice if I could be included in a pensions scheme. I never received an answer. u8uhPfu84E1D2L_DKPe5xrahB4kOwBQzMqiSF-4lAfc

‘Quite a lot of my private business became public. The fact that I was being paid £20,000 a year and that I owed the club £11,000, part of an interest-free loan, was freely discussed in the media. The latter fact emerged in an official statement from Celtic. Some writers even pointed out that I was well down the salary scale in the Premier League. The Press were saying this, mark you, not me.

‘At the meeting it was quickly clear that my future was secondary. The room was littered with Sunday papers and I was accused of making statements which I was required to deny.  Since I had done no such thing, I pointed out that I couldn’t be held responsible for the work of newspaper sub-editors. I did want my conditions improved so that I was at least in a comparable position to other leading Premier League managers. I certainly was not looking for fortunes and had not “demanded” anything.

‘The media claimed that John Greig, Jim McLean, Alex Ferguson and Ricky McFarlane, at St Mirren, were better off. I have to be honest and say it got my back up that the meeting with the board had turned so badly against me that all they wanted were apologies for what had been reported. I felt I was being maneuvered into a position where the chairman wanted me to walk out. I was shattered when I left that meeting.

‘Pride has always been my spur. I don’t like letting anybody down and I don’t fancy being let down myself. I was asked to eat humble pie and I couldn’t see that I had done anything, or said anything, to warrant this. I was never given the opportunity to spell out what I thought was reasonable by the way of a better salary scale. It seemed to me that Mr White wanted a parting of the ways. His mind was made up.’

As Billy McNeill has already pointed elsewhere, his chairman had also put it to him on another invidious occasion that he should sack his assistant, John Clark. It was clear bad feeling had been simmering for some considerable time between two headstrong characters.

McNeill continued, ‘I wasn’t even told the transfer fee paid by Arsenal for Charlie Nicholas. The chairman asked me to tell the Press that Celtic and Arsenal had “satisfactorily” agreed on a transfer fee, but he would not reveal the amount – even to me, his manager. I disagreed with the way the Nicholas transfer was handled, anyway. However, it seemed that my integrity was being questioned since I wasn’t trusted with the information about the fee.’fqIyDs0iSJUFc0u5HGe80XkNWhyGK8nx-mZ78SsPTlY

The situation regarding Nicholas’ transfer undoubtedly drove a wedge between the pair. McNeill did not want to lose the player. If anything, he was looking to build a team around Nicholas, Paul McStay, Roy Aitken and Tommy Burns. He demanded a face-to-face with the chairman. McNeill recalled, ‘I asked him why Nicholas had to be sold in the first place. I might as well have talked to the wall. The answer I got – if, indeed, you could call it that – was a rambling reply to the effect that Celtic had concluded a sound bit of business. That really annoyed me and I retorted, “Mr White, why has he got to leave the club?” The chairman said that was just the way it was in football and I snapped, “No, Mr White, that is the way it is at Celtic. ”

‘I then implored Mr White that if his mind was truly made up to sell our prize asset, at least make it a Dutch auction. By placing Charlie on the open market I reckoned we would receive a small fortune, but I was wasting my time. The board, or at least the chairman, had ruled and Charlie was going to Highbury because Mr White explained, Denis Hill-Wood, the Arsenal chairman, was an honourable man. What that had to do with it, I wouldn’t know.’

Originally, Nicholas was in no rush to leave Celtic. Before he signed forms at Parkhead as a teenager, Ipswich Town manager Bobby Robson had offered him £4,000 as a signing-on fee. That was twenty times the amount Celtic had put on the table, but the player followed his heart and joined his boyhood idols. By his own admission, he hadn’t made up his mind about staying or going when the 1982/83 season came to an end. However, fans at the 4-2 victory over Rangers at Ibrox that tumultuous afternoon were left with the distinct impression that when their favourite player waved to them at the end he was actually waving farewell.

The first offer to him from Celtic was a £300 per week four-year contract. Nicholas was well aware there were four or five players at Parkhead earning more than that. He knew, too, that players at Rangers, Aberdeen and Dundee United were on higher salaries. After a meeting with Desmond White, Nicholas had no doubt his future lay elsewhere. Belatedly, Celtic made a final offer, but the player wouldn’t be swayed. The new contract was for £400 per week with a £20,000 signing-on fee spread over the four years of the deal. Nicholas’ reaction was, ‘By English standards, it was a lousy offer. Even in Scotland, it wasn’t that bright.’

McNeill was certainly more clued up on the market value of Nicholas than his chairman. Manchester United and Liverpool also wanted the player and a bidding war among three clubs with secure financial resources would undoubtedly have seen the price pushed to seven figures. The Celtic manager was aware that Nottingham Forest boss Brian Clough had spent £1million on bringing Trevor Francis from Birmingham City in February 1979, the first deal of this magnitude between two English teams. In September the same year, Malcolm Allison ploughed £1.45million into Wolves’ coffers to take Steve Daley to Manchester City. It was a British record transfer for all of forty-eight hours. Molineux gaffer John Barnwell added to the cash windfall from Allison and bought Scottish international Andy Gray from Aston Villa for £1.46million. All mind-boggling sums at the time. In October 1981, Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson raised the bar a little higher by spending £1.5million on West Brom’s Bryan Robson.-bg8rAUhihklu-RMTL02TCaHcqihrgHC6oONPbTOIB4

Eventually, via the Press, McNeill would discover Arsenal had paid £650,000 for Nicholas. ‘I had absolutely no fears that we would have got £1million for Charlie,’ said the Celtic manager. ‘I looked at what they were paying south of the border for players who were nowhere near the class or quality of our player. It wasn’t just my opinion, either. Most people thought Charlie was worth at least the same as Trevor Francis, whose deal had taken place more than four years earlier. Taking the cost of inflation into consideration, Celtic could have asked for even more for their player. Yet they accepted £350,000 less than the market value for a young player who had his entire career ahead of him. Why? We’ll never know.’

Nicholas, in fact, didn’t even cost half of the gargantuan fee Malcolm Allison splashed so spectacularly and ill-advisedly on Steve Daley, a distinctly average midfielder who never won a solitary full cap for England. The rather staid and proper Observer newspaper, a few years later, summed up the deal as ‘being the biggest waste of money in football history.’ In fact, Daley was sold twenty months later to North American League side Seattle Sounders for £300,000, little more than a fifth of his original transfer value.

It was only too evident that the manager and his board didn’t match ambitions in trying to bring players into the club. McNeill added, ‘My position as manager was being usurped and this was underlined when I tried to sign Joe McLaughlin from Morton. Benny Rooney and Mike Jackson talked about £250,000 which I wouldn’t look at. It was simply too much, but Morton needed cash and they were trying to get the best deal. Some time later Benny phoned me to say I could have the player for £85,000. This time I thought the price was right. With Morton’s blessing, I established from Joe that he wanted to join Celtic rather than Chelsea, who were also in the bidding. I phoned Mr White, who said, reasonably, that he had to consult with the other directors. Eventually, Mr White came back with the news the board had turned down the idea of buying McLaughlin. I then spoke again to the player and wished him every good luck with Chelsea, for whom he has since been a very good player indeed.

‘So, I was either being squeezed out or stripped of authority which would be unacceptable to any worthwhile manager. Mr White’s parting shot was, “You can have further discussions with whichever club you wish.” So, my days at Celtic were officially numbered.

*Extract from Caesar & The Assassin, published by CQN Books.

**We now have a small number SIGNED copies of Caesar & The Assassin remaining and expect these to be gone over this weekend. We will not be getting any more so this is your last chance to get a SIGNED copy, which is available at a discounted price. You can order direct from CQN by clicking HERE or by clicking on the photograph below. You can also check out all our other great Celtic books and DVDs – including the new 4 IN A ROAR DVD using this link. All earlier orders have been send so should have arrived by now or will be with you early next week. Enjoy!


Billy McNeill & Davie Hay at Paradise for CQN’s book launch for Caesar & The Assassin


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