John McKeand ‘Ian’ McNeill: Football player, manager and scout who signed several big names

Ian McNeill photographed in his Leicester City playing days. Picture: PA
Ian McNeill photographed in his Leicester City playing days. Picture: PA
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John McKeand ‘Ian’ McNeill. Football manager, scout and player. Born: 24 February, 1932 in Glasgow. Died: 6 October, 2017 in Aberdeen, aged 85.

Ian McNeill was a footballer and manager whose exceptional ­talents in the star-spotting realm surpassed his own impressive career on the pitch.

As a scout he signed players including Jimmy Floyd ­Hasselbaink, Duncan Shearer, Billy Dodds, Gordon Durie, Pat Nevin and Mixu Paatelainen, who all went on to become major names.

He also spotted and predicted a stellar career for a 16-year-old now known as the greatest male player in the world today – Cristiano Ronaldo – though he admitted that even then the youngster would have cost a small fortune.

McNeill himself was a record-breaking signing as a young man when he joined Brighton and Hove Albion for £10,000 in 1959 but it was in management that he ­really made his mark, particularly during a spell as assistant at Chelsea where he helped to take the club into top flight football in the 1980s.

An inside forward, he was born in Glasgow where he played for the Bridgeton Waverley youth team and turned out five times for his country with Scotland Under-18s.

He also played alongside the future Celtic goalkeeper and Lisbon Lion Ronnie Simpson and a young Tommy Sutherland who, after signing for Rangers, left the game to become an academic and was taken hostage, alongside Terry Waite in Lebanon, while ­working with the American University of Beirut.

Meanwhile McNeill, then an apprentice draughtsman, caught the eye of Aberdeen FC scout Bobby Calder and ­manager Dave Halliday and joined the Dons as a part-time player while continuing his apprenticeship. He made his first appearance at Pittodrie in a practice match in August 1950 and the following year scored within the first 10 minutes of his debut in the first team against St Mirren.

After his career was interrupted by National Service, during which he spent 18 months in Kenya, he returned to Aberdeen becoming a full-time player in 1955. He enjoyed much success with the Dons’ reserves, picking up a wealth of silverware and once scoring seven goals in a match against East Fife reserves that ended in a 15-0 thrashing.

Despite being known by Dons fans as The Mighty Atom – he was just over 5ft 5in – he found it difficult to break into the first team and scored only once for them. After Dave ­Halliday moved to Leicester City he took up an offer to join him there and left Aberdeen in 1956.

His fortunes changed and in his first season at Leicester he scored 20 goals – two in the FA Cup – and the club was ­promoted to the First Division.

The late 1950s saw his move to Brighton and Hove Albion followed by a season with Southend United. He then returned to Scotland as player/coach at Ross County. Very soon he was the manager and they clinched the Highland League title.

By 1968 he was managing non-league Wigan Athletic, where cash problems caused a headache when it came to paying the part-time players.

One solution was provided by a director, bookie Ken ­Cowap. “He also had one-arm bandits,” recalled McNeill, “and I’d go to him when the chairman said he couldn’t help. Ken would throw me the keys to his Mercedes and say I’d find bags of shillings in the boot.”

He later left to take up posts at Salisbury and back at Ross County but had better success with Wigan when he returned and took the club into the Football League in 1978.

The 1980s saw him move to Chelsea as right hand man to former Southend teammate and Chelsea manager John Neal, where the pair presided over the club’s rapid rise from near the bottom of the old Second Division to the upper reaches of the top flight.

According to the club, McNeill’s eye for a player was especially important and his scouting record, of recruiting a string of previously little-known players who then became stars, remains among the most impressive in the club’s history.

After five years at Stamford Bridge he took up an invitation from Kenny Dalglish to scout for Liverpool before going on to manage Shrewsbury Town for three seasons. He then joined Millwall as assistant to Bruce Rioch in 1990 and ­followed him to Bolton ­Wanderers as chief scout.

His scouting career also encompassed Chelsea, Leeds United, Wigan Athletic plus Norwich City, where he was European scout, and he is credited with taking Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to Leeds and Mixu Paatelainen to ­Bolton.

McNeill retired in 2006 after 60 years in the game and moved back to Aberdeen where regularly visited Pittodrie and took part in its centenary celebrations in 2003.

He is survived by his wife Sheila, their son Ian, who once scouted for Aberdeen FC, daughter Carol, and extended family.

ALISON SHAW