Few played with Billy McNeill then served under him when he subsequently entered management. Danny McGrain was among that select band. It provides one former Celtic captain and all-time club great with an exceptional vantage point to assess the status of another in that bracket, whose transcendence is entwined with becoming the first man to lift the European Cup for a British club.
McGrain doesn’t just mourn McNeill, who died this week at the age of 79 after a decade-long struggle with dementia, as one of Celtic’s supreme standard bearers. He sees the legend whose loss has precipitated a national outpouring of love and respect as a man whose flag flutters only below the coaching architect of that 1967 triumph on the continent, one Jock Stein. Or, as McGrain has referred to him since he broke into the Celtic senior ranks in 1970 to inhabit the domain of the Lisbon Lions in which McNeill roared, Mr Stein.
McGrain won 11 of his 14 major honours either with McNeill by his side on the pitch, or on the trackside as the coach guiding him. That transition, which came when McNeill replaced Stein in 1978 – three years after he retired as a player – wasn’t a straightforward one for McGrain, made club captain the previous year following the departure of Kenny Dalglish to Liverpool.
“I remember the first day he came in I was the captain. No one else would take it…” the mischievous McGrain joked. “Big Billy had been a player at the club recently and when he told us what we were doing I either said to him, ‘OK, big man’ or ‘OK Billy’. I think I said Billy. I never called him Cesar. And he wanted me to call him ‘boss.’ I would have been quite comfortable calling him Billy. I felt I had earned the right. Not in public, maybe. But he gave me no inkling before then. And then he said, ‘I want you to call me boss.’ I then apologised for calling him Billy and he said, ‘that’s alright it was my fault.’ From then on he was ‘boss’. That was it, done and dusted. And we got on fine after that because we kept winning everything….”
Despite McGrain’s comic overstatement about that early 1980s period in which Aberdeen and Dundee United vied with Celtic for silverware, such dominance did belong to the Celtic side in which the Stein-McNeill axis was monumental. And such was the place that the Celtic manager reserved for his on-field general that young players were directed to McNeill by Stein for a pep talk when introduced into the first-team ranks. The words of wisdom that centre-half colossus McNeill reserved for teenage right-back McGrain didn’t prove as profound as he had geared himself up to expect. “He didn’t really come out with any great pearls about ‘train well, eat well, get sleep or that kind of stuff’” said McGrain, who was speaking at the launch of Six Foot Two Eyes of Blue, a new biography of Jim Holton. “I don’t actually remember him telling me anything that did me any real good. There was just one piece of advice I remember; ‘don’t eat yellow snow.’”
With McGrain’s 69th birthday only weeks away, the passing of McNeill, and the dreadful toll that his illness took on his mind, can’t but cause McGrain to consider the price extracted by ageing. McGrain had a stent operation following a heart attack five years ago that leaves him flummoxed because neither event was accompanied by any pain.
“All of 20 years ago I was aware of getting older,” said McGrain. “I see people of my age who look old and I ask myself, ‘do I look old? The answer is ‘yes’ I am old. But you don’t see yourself getting old. You never think of yourself as an old person. I’m still reasonably fit for someone of my age.
“Big Billy was fit as well and looked fit. It was simply the case that his mind went and when that happens you’ve had it. I’m so sorry he’s gone but glad he is away from that terrible illness. I’m glad he is at peace and his family have some time to grieve now. I hope he will be happy now because he is gone and free of all of that and we should remember now what he did. He had 13 years as a captain of a great Celtic team. It’s almost unimaginable.”
l Six Foot Two Eyes of Blue is written by Colin Leslie and published by Empire Publications, £10.95.