He was not, nor would ever claim to be, the greatest footballer Scotland or even his beloved Celtic ever produced. But as a leader of men, as an inspiration to those around him and as a person who commanded the respect and admiration of friend and foe alike, McNeill was unsurpassed.
The image of McNeill holding aloft the European Cup in Lisbon 52 years ago, now immortalised by the magnificent statue of him at the front of Celtic Park, is seared into the consciousness of every football lover, regardless of any club loyalties they hold.
Being the captain of 11 players from the west of Scotland who became the first British team to win European football’s greatest prize would, on its own, have afforded him legendary status. But there was so much more to the career of McNeill, an extraordinary body of work both as a player and manager.
His lifelong affinity with Celtic began when the club signed him in the summer of 1957 when he joined a reserve team being coached by Jock Stein, whose own playing career had just been ended by injury. Little could either man have imagined at that stage how their footballing fates would be so memorably entwined in the years ahead.
Before those glory days, McNeill had to endure difficult times in a barren and often directionless period of Celtic’s history. While he prospered and progressed on an individual basis, breaking into the first team at the age of 18 in 1958 and quickly becoming a mainstay, Celtic seldom even threatened to land any major honours in his first few years at the club.
McNeill’s own burgeoning reputation attracted interest from elsewhere and an offer to move to Bill Nicholson’s brilliant Tottenham Hotspur side in 1964 merited serious consideration.
But McNeill turned it down, a decision which would be vindicated early in 1965 when Stein returned to the club as manager. From the moment McNeill rose to head home the 81st-minute winner against Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup final in May ’65, earning Celtic their first major trophy for eight years, the big centre-half was the heartbeat of an unprecedented era of success under Stein.
Even now, the bare statistics of a story as well documented as McNeill’s make breathtaking reading. He claimed 23 major honours as Celtic captain, including the record-breaking nine consecutive league titles from 1966 to 1974 and that stellar evening in the Portuguese sunshine when the Italian aristocrats of Inter Milan were put to the sword.
McNeill was a titan throughout the triumphant European Cup campaign. His pivotal contributions included a last-minute winner in the quarter-finals against Vojvodina and what many contemporary observers regarded as his finest game for Celtic when he produced a defensive masterclass to repel an exceptional Dukla Prague outfit in the second leg of the semi-final.
His tally of 29 caps for Scotland appears relatively miserly, although he played at a time when the country seemed able to produce genuine top-quality central defenders with conveyor belt regularity and there was fierce competition for places. McNeill’s highlights in the dark blue jersey included being captain of the side who beat England 1-0 at Hampden in front of a crowd of more than 133,000.
He called time on his playing career at the age of 35, the news announced minutes after he led Celtic to another Scottish Cup final success against Airdrie in 1975. Renowned football scribe Ian Archer summed up the impact of the news by writing: “Celtic will require a new captain and centre-half, Scottish football will need a new guardian of the game’s more distinguished virtues”.
But after a brief hiatus, McNeill soon made his presence felt in Scottish football once more. His managerial career began at Second Division Clyde in April 1977 but he had only been in the Shawfield hot seat for a couple of months when Aberdeen took him north to replace Ally MacLeod. McNeill would spend only one season at Pittodrie, running a treble-winning Rangers side close in all three domestic competitions, before Celtic came calling in the summer of 1978. Their decision to replace Stein as manager was a considerable shock at the time, even though a fifth-place finish in the league that year was by far the worst of his trophy-laden tenure.
It was an opportunity McNeill simply couldn’t turn down and he was perhaps the only character big enough to succeed Stein. His first season in charge delivered Celtic supporters one of their most cherished moments, an impossibly dramatic title-clinching victory over Rangers at Parkhead on a night when the hosts were reduced to ten men and trailed early in the second half before storming back to win 4-2. It was the first of five major honours Celtic lifted under McNeill’s management before, amid an increasingly fractious relationship with the club’s board, he left in 1983 to try his luck in English football. Despite some initial success at Manchester City, leading them to promotion in 1985, his time south of the Border proved largely unfulfilling and came to an end when he quit as Aston Villa boss following relegation in 1987.
His reputation and status in the eyes of Celtic fans remained untarnished and his return for a second stint as manager that summer was warmly welcomed. As Celtic tried to respond to the Graeme Souness-led revolution taking place at Rangers, McNeill duly masterminded an immediate and stunning response as his team claimed a league and Scottish Cup double in the club’s centenary 1987-88 season.
But despite another Scottish Cup final triumph the following year, McNeill could not prevent Celtic slipping into a period of turmoil and unrest in which the greatest mismanagement was taking place in their boardroom.
He was dismissed in the summer of 1991 but if McNeill had reason to feel bitter about those who dispensed with his services, his affection for Celtic was undiminished.
It took Celtic longer than it should have done to fully recognise his standing as the club’s greatest captain and servant, but his appointment as an official ambassador in 2009 was no less welcome for that. In death, as in life, Billy McNeill will continue to tower over all others at Celtic Park.