However, he spoke yesterday about how privileged he will feel to wear that number today as the former captain and manager is honoured by a capacity crowd in the match against Kilmarnock at Parkhead.
Simunovic has been a Celtic player for four years now but admits that even he was taken aback by the scale of the response to McNeill’s death, aged 79, on Monday.
“The news of his death was a big shock,” he said.” Billy McNeill was such an amazing player for this club and someone who played such a big part in its history. He played so many games here and was such a huge figure so when we heard what had happened it was so sad.
“I will never forget the image of him as the man who lifted the European Cup trophy. He was No 5 so it’s always in my head, that picture. I would say it feels personal for me a little bit because I wear that shirt now. He was such a leader, such a legend and I am the one with his number on my top; it’s nice for me to think about that. It’s an honour and something that makes me feel good, that I have the number of the biggest guy in the club’s history. For me it’s joyful.
“I know there has been talk of the number five being retired at the end of the season and I understand that. I’d be happy to keep wearing it, of course, but it’s not for me to decide and – if the decision is taken by the important people at the club to take it away – then I’ll be happy with that.
“Whatever they decide, I will respect because of Billy. I would be happy to wear another number but while I have it I will wear it with pride.”
McNeill scored 37 times for Celtic during a 17-year playing career, claiming many important goals in domestic and European games, including finding the net in three Scottish Cup final victories.
Simunovic, by contrast, has scored only twice in his 105 appearances for Celtic, but he has been dreaming of improving that statistic in McNeill’s name.
“Maybe tomorrow I will get one,” he said. “I have been thinking about that this week. I’ve seen some footage of the teams he played in and the happiness and the pride they had is something else.
“If I can score against Kilmarnock then I will dedicate the goal to Billy McNeill, definitely. I will go up for every corner thinking this might be the moment. That’s how I need to go.”
Simunovic admitted that it was only after McNeill’s death that he realised the extent and significance of the former captain’s contribution to Celtic folklore.
“It has made such a big impression on myself that he managed to touch so many people around the world – he touched every single Celtic fan, every person who works in the club and even other clubs in other countries,” said the 24-year-old.
“That was surprising to me at first but, when I sat down and checked what he did for Celtic over the years, I realised what a big part he has played in the club’s history so the reaction is to be expected.
“I met him once, just shaking hands in passing. I was taken aback because I knew who he was so it was a big pleasure for me to meet him in person.”