18 years but should Billy McNeill have played on for Celtic?

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There are ultimate ways to end the most glittering of careers. As Billy McNeill was carried aloft by team-mates across the Hampden turf in May 1975, after turning in a typically dominant defensive display to captain his Celtic team to a Scottish Cup final victory over Airdrie that earned him the 23 winners’ medal of an 18-year senior career, it was considered he had bowed out in the most perfect fashion.

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Captain Billy McNeill lifts the Scottish Cup in 1975 after his last match for Celtic. Picture: SNS

Captain Billy McNeill lifts the Scottish Cup in 1975 after his last match for Celtic. Picture: SNS

Two months earlier, McNeill had turned 35. The dunts and pains accumulated in consistently putting his body on the line for almost two decades as he became the greatest warrior for a Scottish team that charged the continental citadel to claim a first European Cup for a non-Latin side in 1967, had begun to catch up with him.

In that 1974-75 season, as Jock Stein’s Celtic came apart in their bid to claim a 10th straight league crown, McNeill had started to feel the affects.

“I should be rested,” he told the Scotsman’s John Raffery during that campaign. “I’m getting little strains I never used to get and the aches take longer to clear up. I need resting but we’ve nobody ready to step in.” No-one indeed, with Celtic minus McNeill - and Stein forced to take time out of the game following a near fatal car-crash - ending up trophyless for the first season in a decade as Rangers helped themselves to a treble the following year.

McNeill later said that he felt he had it in him to play on one or two more seasons with the right management of his body. But this towering figure was never a man who could have been satisfied, or find a satisfactory role, if his stature was in any way diminished.

As he was in being chaired off during the celebrations of his final senior outing, McNeill had to be a stand-out, rising above all others, in triumph. That is how we remember him as a player, and how he engaged, and won, in his joust with footballing mortality.

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