Legendary Celtic captain and manager

Born: March 2, 1940;

Died: April 22, 2019

BILLY McNeill, who has died aged 79, was Celtic's greatest captain, a successful manager of the club and the first British footballer to lift the European Cup, as skipper of the legendary Lisbon Lions.

The Bellshill-born central defender joined Celtic straight from Motherwell's Our Lady's High School in August 1957, aged 17. His playing career at the club would last until he announced his retirement, in May, 1975, his final act in the green and white hoops being to accept the Scottish Cup, following his club's 3-1 Hampden final win over Airdrie.

READ MORE: Celtic manager Neil Lennon and captain Scott Brown pay tribute to Billy McNeill 

At school, he had always been a dominating centre-half – well, apart from a two and a half year stay in Hereford (Billy's father Jimmy was an Army PTO) when Billy played on the wing at a rugby-playing school. He was intelligent too, staying on at school and winning a Scotland Under-18 schoolboy cap in a 3-0 win over England, at Celtic Park, in 1957. Jock Stein was a spectator that night, insisting that chairman Sir Bob Kelly sign the young Scotland centre-half.

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McNeill's timing in arriving at Celtic was fortuitous. Initially he combined playing with a day job with Lanarkshire County Council, before he joined the Stenhouse Insurance Group, while learning his football trade under the direction of Stein. Also, he had the example in the first team of Bobby Evans, who was then the Scotland centre-half.

But the youngster did not have to wait too long for his breakthrough, playing the first of an eventual 789 first-team games for the club in a League Cup tie against Clyde, at Celtic Park, on 23 August, 1958; Celtic won 2-0. But it was not until Evans was transferred to Chelsea, at the end of the following 1959-60 season, that McNeill made the centre-half spot his own.

However, his defensive talents were already being noted and he made his Scotland Under-23 debut in a 1-1 draw with Belgium, in Ghent, on 20 April, 1960. Then, in March 1961, he completed a successful “audition” by performing well in the Scottish League XI's 3-2 win over the English League, at Ibrox.

McNeill was now seen as a shoo-in to make his full Scotland debut at Wembley, on 15 April, 1961, but the least-said about that dismal debut, a 9-3 Scotland loss, the better. At that time, he was still a part-time player.

READ MORE: Tributes paid to Celtic legend Billy McNeill 

Still, the 21-year-old centre-half was one of the few Scots to escape from the debacle without harsh criticism. That game set McNeill off on a run of six straight Scotland games, but his place was soon being contested by Dundee's Ian Ure, starring in a club side which was doing markedly better than Celtic and as the Scotland selectors swithered between which of the two to select, there was constant debate over the Scotland number five shirt.

This was to be a feature of McNeill's career. He was unchallenged at Celtic, quickly becoming the rock on which the first team was founded, even before the return of Stein and the emergence of the Lisbon Lions between 1965 and 1967. Then, as the captain and inspiration of the best Scottish club side ever, he should perhaps have been first pick as Scotland centre-half and captain.

Instead, he only played 29 internationals, spread over 11 years. In that time, Scotland played 78 internationals, but McNeill never played more than six consecutive games for his country and, after being handed the Scotland captaincy for the first time, in the 1-0 win over England at Hampden, on 11 April, 1964, the occasion of his 12th cap, he only led Scotland a further seven times.

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He and John Clark, his near-anonymous but so-crucial co-defender at the heart of the Celtic rearguard, while widely considered to be one of the best defensive partnerships in world football, were only chosen in tandem once for Scotland, in the 2-0 loss to USSR.

If not featuring for Scotland hurt McNeill, he never showed it. Celtic came first. His early years in the team were unsuccessful - defeat to Jock Stein's Dunfermline Athletic in the 1961 Scottish Cup final, a loss to Rangers in the 1963 Scottish Cup Final, another loss to their oldest rivals in the 1964-65 League Cup finals, and league finishes of ninth, fourth, third, fourth, third and eighth between 1960 and 1961.

Chairman Kelly believed in the quality of the young “Kelly Kids” such as McNeill, Bobby Murdoch, Jimmy Johnstone, and Bobby Lennox, but something was missing. Indeed, unhappy at the club's lack of success, McNeill contemplated leaving Celtic.

That missing piece of the jigsaw arrived in February, 1965. when Stein was enticed away from Hibs. Initially, league form was patchy, but a good Scottish Cup run salvaged their season and, on 24 April, 1965, having twice been behind, Celtic achieved their long-awaited breakthrough, beating Dunfermline 3-2 to win the Scottish Cup for the first time in 11 years.

The barren years were over, and how the McNeill-inspired Celtic built on that breakthrough win. The following season, they held off a ferocious Rangers challenge to win the league. They also beat their greatest rivals in the League Cup final, but, a Kai Johanssen goal in a Scottish Cup final replay denied them Celtic's first Scottish “Treble”.

READ MORE: In pictures: Remembering Celtic legend Billy McNeill

Not to worry, the following season, 1966-67, Celtic did not just win a Treble – they won every competition they entered, capping this fantastic year with that immortal victory over Inter Milan, in Lisbon in the European Cup Final. McNeill became the first British club captain to lift the giant European Cup and the picture of him holding it aloft on the balcony of Portugal's national stadium is one of Scottish sport's most iconic and enduring images.

In all, McNeill accepted 23 major trophies as Celtic captain: that European Cup, the nine League Championship trophies between 1966 and 1974, seven Scottish Cups, in 1965, 1967, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1974 and 1975 and the League Cup in five successive seasons – 1965-66 to 1969-70 and again in 1974-75. No other British player had won so much with one club.

After such a lengthy playing career, McNeill took a break from the game, but its lure was too strong and, in April, 1977, he took over from Stan Anderson as manager at Clyde. His tenure at Shawfield would last a mere eight games, of which four were won, three were drawn with only a 2-0 loss to Alloa blotting his escutcheon.

It was a good start, but, with Ally MacLeod getting the Scotland manager's job in May, 1977, during the close season, McNeill was lured to Pittodrie to replace him. He oversaw a league challenge which saw them chase Treble-winning Rangers all the way in the league, eventually finishing second, two points behind Jock Wallace's all-conquering side.

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He had proved himself up to the strains of management and, when at the end of May, 1978, Jock Stein and Celtic parted company after 13 glorious years, McNeill was asked to take over at his former club. McNeill took over a squad which had finished a distant fifth in the league, 19 points adrift of Rangers.

But, what a turn-around as, after a sticky start, the new boss began to get his team playing, and on 21 May, 1979, less than a year after his appointment, McNeill saw his ten-man side come from behind to beat Rangers 4-2 at Celtic Park to clinch the league title.

It was a great start to his tenure at Celtic Park. He led the club to Scottish Cup glory in 1980, then added further league titles back-to-back in 1980-81 and in 1981-82, but, after the board sold Charlie Nicholas to Arsenal, the relationship between the manager and the Families who then controlled the club broke down totally and, at the end of season 1982-83, when Celtic failed by one point to make it three league titles in a row, McNeill left Celtic for English football and Manchester City, languishing in the second division.

He led his new club to fourth place in their division in his first season, then third place and promotion back to the top-flight in his second season, 1984-85. Back in the top-flight, City finished 15th in the table in 1985-86. However, in September of 1986, he quit Maine Road to join Aston Villa, but, this was a case of out of the frying pan into the fire and at the end of the season, he had set a unique record of seeing both the clubs he managed relegated, as City and Villa finished in the bottom two places in the league.

McNeill quit Birmingham, to return to Glasgow and Celtic. Davie Hay, who had succeeded him as Celtic boss had kept the club competitive, but, a Scottish Cup win in 1985 and that sensational last-day League win in 1986 had not entirely pleased either the Celtic board or the fans. Hay was dismissed, with McNeill invited to return for a second spell as manager.

This brought an immediate dividend as a callow Celtic squad embellished the club's centenary season with a league and cup double in 1988. But, the Souness revolution had regenerated Rangers, who not only out-spent Celtic, they overwhelmed them when it came to league success. There were tensions too between manager and board, and between McNeill and chief executive Terry Cassidy. Finally, on 22 May, 1991, McNeill and Celtic parted company.

Away from the club he loved, McNeill became a well-considered commentator on football through a newspaper column. He briefly returned to the game as Director of Football and caretaker manager at Hibs in 1998, while he concentrated on his business concerns such as his popular pub McNeill's, on the south-side of Glasgow.

He left Celtic just as the revolution which would see Fergus McCann come in to turn the club's fortunes around and gradually the new regime began to give McNeill and his fellow Lisbon Lions the place they deserved at the club – culminating in the former captain being appointed Club Ambassador in 2009.

A statue of McNeill, holding aloft the European Cup, was unveiled in front of Celtic Park in 2015. He was awarded the MBE when he retired for his services to the game.

Billy McNeill, who had been suffering from dementia, and his wife Liz had long been one of football's golden couples. The McNeills, who married in 1963, had four daughters – Susan, twins Carol and Libby, and Paula and son Martyn, who survive Billy, along with his grand-children.

MATT VALLANCE