John Clark was friend, and footballing and coaching confrere of a McNeill whose passing he is now mourning. The pair joined Celtic as youngsters within a year of one another in the late 1950s, travelled into the club on the bus from Lanarkshire together, formed the defensive bedrock of the Lisbon Lions. They then shared a dugout when management replaced playing; Clark the No 2 to McNeill in the season at Aberdeen which presaged his first stint at the Celtic helm from 1978 until 1983.
During that period the pair travelled down to Watford on a spying mission, no doubt Clark with “ the sweat running off” him over McNeill’s love of a “fast car” that “would have given the boy [Lewis] Hamilton a run for his money”.
“After a really long drive we but couldn’t figure how to get into the ground,” the 78 year old recalled yesterday. “We were going around a corner and who comes out of his car but Elton John and he recognised him.
“So, we had Elton John showing us where to park because the two of us hadn’t a clue where we were going. We couldn’t believe it. Billy could go anywhere in the football world and be recognised because he was so well respected.”
That has been shown with the avalanche of tributes from across the entire football world for a true great who was also simply a good sort to Clark who has had to watch Alzheimer’s Disease drain his friend of life in recent years. It seems to have give nhim a sense of losing his buddy twice over.
Clark added: “Naturally, your thoughts go to the family first of all. You knew it was coming but it is still a blow because this is someone you have known for your whole life, really.
“When we came to Celtic, there were no cars then, so it was the bus. The green bus, they called it. I got on it first, then Billy, then wee Jinky [Jimmy Johnstone]. There was a treble for you! We used to get off at the bus stop down there, just in time for training. Naturally, over the years your friendship grows. You play alongside him and then you work together in management.
“It is a sad day for the club. He was a big-time star. He had a good presence about him and a story for the Press all the time.
“He was a winner, determined to get there all the time. He scored a lot of goals at important times. If you went into our dressing room, there were quite a lot of captains, if you understand. But he was the one. And if he had something to say, then he would say it.
“Off the park, he was right good company. All the boys then had stories to tell. He was a humble person, down to earth. He came from Bellshill, I came from Chapelhall. Working-class areas and we were brought up in the working class.
“I had been up to see him a few times recently with wee Bertie. It was sad to see but you remember the good times, when he was at his best.
“If he had to give people a telling off, he could do it. He wasn’t slow laying down the law but he was fair enough in his ways. Most of all, though, he was like the rest of us – he was down to earth. He was just Billy McNeill. We will miss him now as a friend and his company.
“I remember being in Majorca one day and he took his golf club out and hit the ball. You can imagine – the ball bouncing off every wall while I am lying on the floor trying to stay out of the way.
“When we shared a room it was like a chocolate factory. He loved sweeties, chocolate in particular. I have never seen anything like it in my life. I enjoyed them myself, right enough. He is a big miss. He has been a miss even in hospital. As a footballer no-one will ever beat what he has done.
“As time goes on and life goes on, you’ll think back and enjoy the good times, the fun times. And we had a lot of fun.”
Their Lisbon Lions team-mate Bertie Auld, rarely other than ebullient, choked up yesterday as he considered the awful toll Alzheimer’s took on a man who had embodied strength and vitality.
“It was difficult. I do some functions and a fortnight ago I was waiting to go on and I’d seen Billy just before it,” he said. “There was a big table of 20 with husbands and wives and Billy came into my mind as he could have addressed them without any fear of contradiction.
“That was the day after I’d seen him and it made it difficult to accept. When the phone went this morning I answered and I knew it was Cairney [Jim Craig] right away. But I never thought it would be about Billy. I’d been prepared in the past, but it was quite a shock. But it was a Godsend in the end.
“It’s been heartbreaking for Liz [his wife] and the family. But the Celtic supporters loved him and he will never be forgotten.
“Billy McNeill was good for Celtic and Celtic was good for him and I’m honoured to have played with him.”