Richard Gough: McNeill’s reaction to Rangers’ nine in a row showed his class

Only one man could truly appreciate the emotions Richard Gough felt at Tannadice on the night of 7 May 1997.

When Rangers equalled the sequence of nine successive title wins which Celtic had completed 23 years earlier, Billy McNeill may well have experienced a pang of regret that the club he loved now had to share the cherished record with their Old Firm rivals.

Yet it was a mark of the man that he was among the first to offer Gough his appreciation of the achievement.

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“At the moment, only Billy and I have captained teams to nine in a row,” said former Ibrox skipper Gough as he reflected on the passing of Celtic icon McNeill at the age of 79 yesterday.

“We both knew the pressures of that and I will never forget his reaction when Rangers did it in 1997.

“One of the first calls I got the next day was from Billy. He just said to me, ‘Richard, congratulations to you and Rangers. I didn’t think it would ever be achieved again’. That always stayed with me. It summed up 
Billy’s class. He showed true respect to Rangers.

“As an Old Firm captain, I always looked to John Greig and Billy as an example of how to conduct myself. Billy was a top player, and a fair player. He was a true man. I took a lot 
from him.

“Billy was always very fair in his assessment of games whenever he was a pundit and I was actually thinking about him the other day.

“Someone sent me a YouTube clip of me scoring a goal against Celtic in September 1996. Jorg Albertz put a corner in and I scored with a header into the top corner.

“Billy is co-commentating on the clip and he is full of praise for the goal. He says something along the lines of, ‘We all know how good Richard Gough is in the air, so I don’t understand why Celtic have let him go free’. Billy was a class act on and off the pitch. He was a great man.”

Like McNeill at Celtic, Gough was an integral member of all nine title-winning seasons Rangers racked up consecutively.

Not only did Gough take inspiration from the manner in which McNeill and his Rangers counterpart Greig captained their clubs in the 1960s and 1970s, he also aspired to the qualities the Lisbon Lions’ skipper displayed as a commanding central defender.

“As a top centre-back, Billy was always someone I looked to growing up as a player,” recalled Gough.

“I remember going away on my early Scotland trips and I’d always try to learn off the senior boys. I would listen to stories from guys like Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish and soak it all up.

“Roy Aitken and Tommy Burns were also in the squad at that time and I used to ask them about Billy.

“Roy told me a great story about when Billy was manager of Celtic during his first spell in the early 1980s. They were going through a period of losing goals from corners in matches.

“Big Packie Bonner and the defenders were all having a debate about how to solve it. Some were saying they should go zonal and others were saying they should go man for man.

“But Roy said Billy came out on the training pitch, gave Davie Provan a bunch of balls and told him to put corners in. Billy said to them, ‘Put the crosses in and I’ll defend it myself’.

“Billy planted himself between the six yard box and penalty spot – and cleared every single cross. He just went and attacked the ball in the air and nobody could get near him.

“As a young defender, that was a great story for me because that’s what I wanted to do. To hell with marking anyone, I was just going to win the ball and clear it.

“Billy was right, the best thing to do as a defender is just go and head it. He was remarkable in the air and that little anecdote always stayed with me.

“All the Celtic players were arguing about how to defend corners and Billy – as the leader – showed how it was done. Roy said it was hilarious watching Billy clear all the corners as all the other Celtic players tried to score.”

Just as McNeill became an official ambassador for Celtic in his later years, USA-based Gough now fills a similar role for Rangers.

“I was aware Billy wasn’t in good health but I was really sad to learn of his passing,” added 
Gough.

“Billy was a great player but, more importantly, he was a good person. I always had huge respect for him and a good relationship, even when he was the Celtic manager second time around and I was at Rangers.

“Billy was the kind of football figure that everyone on both sides of the Old Firm divide had massive respect for. I met Billy and his wife Liz many times and my condolences go to the McNeill family.”