“Meet you down by Billy McNeill” is a phrase that has now been added to the Celtic lexicon. Rarely has a rendezvous point been so awe-inspiring.
Billy, you’re immortal. But then, of course, they all are. Jock, Jimmy, Bertie, Ronnie and the rest of the Lisbon gang, three of whom are now positioned on plinths outside Celtic Park (Brother Walfrid makes up the quartet on sentry duty for all time outside Paradise, joining Jock Stein, Jimmy Johnstone and, as of this weekend, McNeill).
They form the perfect pick-me-up for fans forced, as after Saturday’s defeat by Motherwell, to take melancholy strolls in the drizzle down an avenue of greats. It was as if the emotion of the earlier part of the day had conspired to enervate Celtic.
The current players possibly felt unworthy. And if not, they should now.
There’s no denying there was some unease in the air. Some Celtic fans in a gathering approaching 3,000 in number admitted to feeling slightly apprehensive.
After all, there have been several unsatisfactory statues sculpted in tribute to football legends. Such was the furore over one, depicting former Southampton player and manager Ted Bates, or at least supposedly depicting him, it was even removed and re-done.
So there was slight trepidation as the green canvas, tightly baled around the figure at the foot of Celtic Way, was removed. Yes, we could already see that the statue portrayed Billy in the iconic, European Cup-lifting pose. Try as they might, it was hard to conceal something so identifiable as the jug-eared trophy.
But would it capture Billy? Would it be deserving to stand as such an enduring tribute to a great hero in Celtic’s history – and let’s face it, Scottish and British football history?
Fears fell away, much like Celtic’s resistance later the same day, when the statue, by John McKenna, was unveiled, to a backdrop of rousing music. It hadn’t proved straightforward, confessed the sculptor.
McNeill’s strong, nuanced features always seemed ideal to be carved into the side of a mountain. But that doesn’t mean to say they are easy to reproduce, first in clay, then wax and then, finally, in bronze, as McKenna had to do.
There was one false start, revealed McKenna, who also produced the statue of Stein at Celtic Park.
He is currently working on one of Bon Scott, the late AC/DC singer, to be erected in Kirriemuir next year.
“The McNeill family came down and they were brilliant,” explained the Ayrshire-based, Manchester-born McKenna. “Billy’s wife Liz, his son Martin, they came down and we worked through it. I wanted to make a portrait they were happy with.
“It is pressurised. I had to put a different face on it. We literally cut it off and changed the face, because the family came down and said they expected something slightly different. As a sculptor, it is not about what I want. It is not a piece of art for me. It is a piece of art for the family and these fans.
“So we cut the whole face off and started again, from scratch. You can spend as long on the face as the rest of the sculpture. There is a lot of detail in it. I enjoyed it. It was a bit more interesting than the Jock Stein one, which is a man in a suit. With this one, there’s a lot more going on.”
But McKenna could shed no light on the positioning of the statue, with McNeill appearing to brandish the European Cup in the direction of Lisbon – or is it Ibrox? Of course, brandishing is not McNeill’s style. McKenna’s only concern is the clutter of street furniture on London Road, which risks ruining Billy’s view across Glasgow. “Too many pylons,” pointed out McKenna.
But these are small gripes, hopefully resolvable. We had already been treated to a singsong by Bertie Auld who, in a typically infectious turn, led everyone in a verse or two of “It’s A Grand Old Team..”
This rendition was louder and sung with more conviction than anything chorused by the home fans once they got inside the ground.
Best of all, and uniquely in the case of the four statues commissioned to date by Celtic, the unveiling of the latest one was attended by the subject himself. McNeill walked with small steps and carried himself stiffly but with great dignity.
McNeill, now 75, embraced his former team-mates, including Auld and Jim Craig, and also the distinguished commentator Archie Macpherson. They all made well-pitched speeches. So, too, did chief executive Peter Lawwell: “We are delighted to have you here Billy, proud and imposing, looking over the Celtic Way, forever.”
It said everything about the importance attached to the day by Celtic that, just two hours before kick-off, the players all filed down Celtic Way in club tracksuits to observe the moment and salute a living legend.
None of them can ever hope to emulate what McNeill achieved at a club where he won 30 trophies as a player and nine as manager. None of them can dream of playing 790 times for Celtic, which is, at the very least, McNeill’s tally of appearances.
Indeed, few in football anywhere can boast of such permanence, not that McNeill, the most humble of great figures, like truly great figures usually are, would ever think – or need – to boast.
But one thing’s for sure, McNeill will always be there, in rain and shine. Just like when he was a player, one who, as Stein put it, in sentiments included on the base of the statue, inspired his team-mates to be better. Now his presence at the gateway to Celtic Park will go on inspiring others, forever more.
Billy, you’re immortal.