John Rafferty sees Celtic captain end his playing career by lifting his 23rd major trophy
Celtic 3 Airdrieonians 1
BILLY McNeill went out of football on Saturday as we remember him best – with a cup in his hand. Celtic had just beaten Airdrie comprehensively in a satisfying Scottish Cup final and McNeill, as so often before, had climbed to the presentation platform and held the cup aloft to be acclaimed by the ecstatic supporters.
The photographers crowded around jostling for a good position. He was again in the centre of the scene, triumphant, and there in a moment of glory at the top he announced “That is a career” and moved out to give full-time attention to his considerable business interests.
It is not given to many to go out with such dignity and such pride. How often have we watched with embarrassment the greats in sport overstaying their prowess? Few have resisted the temptation to have just another little try. “I’ve still much to offer”, “I’ll know when to quit,” they say. At times it is very sad.
Billy McNeill has lasted for 18 years in the game. He did not live like a monk, but he never did abuse himself. He took a drink but only in the moderate way an athlete should.
He earned big money, and maybe more than any other Scottish football player has done. He has not wasted any of it. He first tested the insurance business and then preferred to be working for himself. With his partners he now has a string of busy hotels and a development business. He is as dependable in business matters as he was in organising a championship defence.
And so the spectacular retirement was not a spur of the moment decision. He had been working to make it possible for many years. Too many careers have dragged on pitifully because the hero could not afford to retire. Billy McNeill has demonstrated the ideal approach to professional football. It is not a profession in itself but merely a stepping stone to prosperity and the good life.
He was discovered as a schoolboy by the late Sir Robert Kelly as he watched Our Lady’s High playing in a Shield match. McNeill was sent to develop with Blantyre Victoria and when he was called up to Celtic Park he had his first smile from fortune when he came under the influence of the then coach, Jock Stein. The greatest partnership in football had started.
The stirring deeds over the intervening years have left even Jock Stein short of words. He told me: “What can I say about Billy McNeill? I’ll give you the figures and they tell all.” The figures precisely are that he played for Celtic for over 18 years and played in 831 games. He was captain of nine League Championship sides. He won a European Cup medal, seven Scottish Cup medals and six League Cup medals. He was selected 28 times for Scotland and nine times for the Scottish League. On Saturday he played in his 28th major cup final.
What, indeed, could be added to the figures except that there must have been extraordinary self-discipline to keep fit, mentally and physically, over the strenuous years to end, as he started, a gregarious character but one dedicated to his club and wanting to know about no other. Such is the loyalty managers dream about.
Last season was a trying one for him. He told me midway through it, and not as an excuse for some indifferent form which had some saying that he should go: “I should be rested. 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.” He soldiered on.
Latterly when he did have those rests his form did return and on Saturday he was out on Hampden field in all his magnificence, master in the air, authoritative in his handling of the play, lordly and justifying the nickname his mates have for him, Caesar. Now Caesar is gone and not with a blade in his back but with the laurel wreath firmly on his head.
In that Scottish Cup final on Saturday other jewels glittered around Billy McNeill but none outshone him. He gave backbone to a Celtic team which always had the capability to win but could have been diverted into paths in which they would have been lost.
As Stein had said beforehand, speed was the one factor which Airdrie would not want to combat. It had to be, for how could players who trained on but two nights a week be expected to last a game played flat out at a sprinting pace? When Celtic sprinted they were on top and McNeill, besides giving confidence and solidarity to the defence, kept them going. Airdrie had pride and courage but they had not the pace of Celtic nor had they the sprinkling of very good players that McNeill had at his command.
They had no Danny McGrain, no Kenny Dalglish, and their best players, Derek Whiteford and Tommy Walker, were no better than Celtic’s most ordinary.
As Stein had said beforehand: “Celtic just had to be themselves to win and one could sense his worry that recently they have too often not been themselves.” It was the captain’s job to see that they maintained the motivation Stein had imparted.
There was a spell before half-time when they slackened off and Airdrie were quickly pushing into the game. McCann scored to wipe out Wilson’s goal but within a minute Wilson had headed his second and Celtic were on top again.
In the second half Celtic should have done better than the one goal McCluskey scored from a penalty kick. They made many chances.
There was an unexpectedly big crowd of 75,547 and Airdrie’s efforts had entertained them. They had never looked like winning but they were great triers and their bonus has been to play before 140,000 spectators in their last two matches.
If it had not been for the retirement of Billy McNeill then this would have been Kenny Dalglish’s final. He adorned the game with some of the most ballet-like play ever set before a Hampden crowd. So precise was his pass for Celtic’s first goal that some were claiming that he has scored off Wilson’s head.
He is an extraordinary player when in this mood and if he had a failing it was that he seemed only interested in scoring great goals. when I remarked on this to a supporter he said with some irritation: “I wish to hell he would score some bad goals.” We cannot all be perfectionists or connoisseurs.
It was a very good Scottish Cup final and Airdrie take much credit for making it so. Maybe they have gone some way to convincing some that as far as the Scottish Cup final is concerned it is the event which is important not the participants. It is thus in England, but then they do not have Celtic and Rangers supporters.
Celtic: Latchford, McGrain, McNeill, McCluskey, Lynch, Wilson, Murray, Glavin, Lennox, Dalglish, Hood.
Airdrieonians: McWilliams, Jonquin, Menzies, Black, Cowan, McCann, Whiteford. Lapsley (Reynolds), Wilson, Walker, McCulloch (March).
Referee: I Foote. Att: 75,457