Peter Grant: Billy McNeill – my idol, my gaffer and Celtic’s double hero
Billy. It made the papers because it was the first time he, not long made Celtic manager, had been pictured alongside the then new Scotland manager Jock. I was in awe of these men then, and they are giants of the Scottish game that always made you feel that way about them.
Billy became my manager, my gaffer, and always was to be ‘gaffer’ to me for evermore. I remember when I signed s-forms at Celtic aged 11, and he would come to watch games. You always wanted to give that little extra when he saw him there. He and the rest of the Lisbon Lions didn’t just make you want to get a chance to wear the hoops. They ensured you wanted to make damn sure if you ever got to put it on that you did everything in your power to honour that jersey because of the iconic feats they had achieved donning it.
Of course never more so than when Billy stood there that night in Lisbon in 1967 as the first British player to have the Europan Cup in his grasp, in an image that seemed to belong to a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster. It was a long shadow that the Lions created, but it filled everyone who came after them with pride as they strived, just as Billy’s passing now fills us with heartbreak.
When Billy walked through the door, you stood a little taller. He always stood the tallest, though, even as he made you feel 10 feet, because he had an aura, and exuded, and demanded, respect. Even in recent times when I met him, and Billy was on my testimonial committee in 1997, I would still pinch myself, get that little zing, as I thought “I’m speaking to Billy McNeill”.
What I also marvelled about with Billy is how immaculately turned out he was at all times. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had been on the latest of late ones, the next morning he would come in with not a hair out of place, his complexion as fresh as his suit and tie.
My word, though, in my playing days we had some cross words. And while I always called him gaffer, he called me all manner of names when I was under him in his second spell as Celtic manager from 1987 till 1991. He was stubborn as a mule, but that was one of his great strengths. But we would go back and forth at times when he was giving out about a bad attitude, or laziness.
I hated generalisations, so I would say ‘name names’ or ‘tell us who you mean’. That would cause him to get right agitated but, actually, for a man who could give off such a confident air with that chest puffed out, he always was a bundle of nervous energy. He would pull at his watch, flick stones in the dug-out and do that wee spit through his teeth. That told you how much succeeding with Celtic meant to him even after all he had achieved as a player, and how much he didn’t want to let anyone down.
People forget just how much his chances of delivering any trophies were written off when he came back to Celtic in the summer 1987, as the club prepared for the centenary season. We lost our last pre-season game 5-1 at home to Arsenal and everyone said we were in for a disastrous campaign. But some things are meant to be, and some incredible things seemed meant to be for Billy. He guided us to a famous league and Scottish Cup double in a manner that was typical Celtic, typical him, with tenacity, never-say-die spirit and all manner of late winners and miraculous escapes. On the centenary video the club made, he likened the struggle for supremacy in Scottish football to the cavaliers facing off against the roundheads in which we, Celtic, were the cavaliers. That spoke of his ability to sum things up with real wisdom and wit. He was a sharp cookie. The centenary double couldn’t have happened to a more Celtic man in the club’s history.
Everyone had the utmost respect for Billy and his wonderful family, and we will all feel and pray for them now this day has come. What he was is precisely why the tributes will roll on, and on and on. And, make no mistake, people who are brought up on Celtic as it celebrates its 200 years will still be regaled as to the club Billy, Jock and Brother Walfrid made. They may have statues outside the stadium, but they will always being living presences within it.