You’ll never walk alone: Tributes to Celtic legend and footballing giant Billy McNeill

Tributes have been paid to Billy McNeill, the first British footballer to hold aloft the European Cup and a stalwart of Celtic for more than 60 years.

Celtic legend 
Billy McNeill has passed away at the age of 79.
Celtic legend Billy McNeill has passed away at the age of 79.

The celebrated captain of Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions team died aged 79 surrounded by his family and loved ones.

McNeill was just 27 when he secured his place in sporting history after willing on his team-mates to a famous 1967 victory over Inter Milan.

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His role in the triumph saw him immortalised in the form of a statue outside Celtic Park, the home of the club he served for more than 27 years as player and manager, winning 31 trophies along the way.

On an overcast day in Glasgow’s east end, the bronze statue by sculptor John McKenna served as a gathering place for those wishing to pay respect to the formidable defender nicknamed Cesar.

Bertie Auld and John Clark, McNeill’s fellow Lisbon Lions, laid a wreath.

Auld remembered McNeill as the fearsome competitor who led his team out into the searing heat of Lisbon’s Estádio Nacional 52 years ago.

“His chest was out and his head was back,” recalled Auld. “He knew we would win and that filtered through the rest of us. He was never arrogant or egotistical. He just believed in himself and the rest of us.”

In a sign of McNeill’s standing, the ranks of fans who gathered outside Celtic Park included Rangers supporters, who left their own flowers and messages of condolence. John Greig, the former Rangers captain and a close friend of McNeill, reflected on a “leader” and a “commanding and respected figure”.

A big screen inside Celtic Park captured McNeill in his pomp, with a message underneath stating: “Rest in peace, Cesar, You’ll never walk alone.”

McNeill, who holds the club record for most appearances, had been suffering from dementia since 2010. His wife Liz and their five children, Susan, Paula, Libby, Carol and Martyn, said in a family statement that he had fought bravely, showing the same “strength and fortitude” he displayed in green and white.

The statement added: “We would also like to note our love and appreciation to our mother, Liz, for the care, devotion and love she gave to our father throughout his illness. No-one could have done any more.

“Whilst this is a very sad time for all the family and we know our privacy will be respected, our father always made time for the supporters so please tell his stories, sing his songs and help us celebrate his life.”

Peter Lawwell, chief executive of Celtic, where McNeill was latterly a club ambassador after a management career that also spanned Aberdeen, Manchester City and Aston Villa, described him as a “great man who epitomised everything that is good and positive about the club”.

Among the many others who paid tribute was Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager.

Hailing McNeill as a “giant of Scottish football”, he said he had an “incredible presence”.

“We played against each other on many occasions and, as anyone who played against him will testify, he was the fairest of players,” he said. “He was also a truly good man and will be a loss to everyone who knew him.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said McNeill was “a giant of Scottish football”, adding: “The tributes from across the game speak volumes about the affection in which he was held.”