ALL TOO few are those occasions when a certain genus of west of Scotland male permits himself to display public shows of tenderness. Mostly, we are imprisoned in a pre-constructed framework of our antecedents’ grim making which governs how we must respond at those times when emotions threaten to wreck our sense of what makes a man.

You can carry your infant offspring in your papoose if you want and emote all day long to Ed Sheeran but our emotional default is to remain outwardly impervious to matters of the soul and to be ever-vigilant for the first sign of tears. We know that this has reduced us and stunted our spiritual growth and that more of our kind are seeking to free themselves but you can’t expect change to happen overnight following centuries of conditioning.

In Scotland, though, profound human events occurring around our favourite football teams and the heroes who represent them provide a dispensation from this emotionally monochrome existence. On these occasions you can weep freely and aspire to hug without feeling self-conscious. You don’t need to worry about lying awake later that night wondering if you over-did it or if your children might have been traumatised at the sight of your tears.

When John Greig, the great and noble captain of Glasgow Rangers FC arrived at Celtic Park on Wednesday to lay flowers at the statue of Billy McNeill, his friend and rival who had just died, some of us who until then had fought the urge to weep finally succumbed. This, of course, seems ridiculous to those whose lives haven’t been touched by any emotional attachment to a football team. Why does the death of a club legend who you might never have met produce tears when perhaps your own wedding or the birth of your children or the death of your parents didn’t?

Graeme McGarry: The friendship between Billy McNeill and John Greig is an example to us all

Perhaps it’s connected to the role that football clubs once played in working class communities encountering hardship, ill health and early death. This was especially so with a club like Celtic that drew support from a section of society which were experiencing discrimination and persecution and lived in conditions of profound deprivation. Celtic were their representatives and competed for them on a level playing field where the rules were (mostly) applied fairly. Every victory and triumph represented more than just excellence at playing football; they were glimpses of what might be achieved when given an equal chance.

Certainly, Celtic were the pride of Irish immigrants but they came to represent something deeper. They gave these people some relief at the end of a week spent either looking for a job; being exploited at their place of work or worrying about how to provide food for the family. In these circumstances you couldn’t afford the luxury of sentiment and tears. To have shown either would have been to admit defeat. The triumphs and failures of Celtic, as with many other clubs who carried the hopes of poor communities, gave hard men the chance to grant parole to their imprisoned feelings. Celtic and football wasn’t their life but they helped make a hard life worth living.

Billy McNeill became more than just the captain of our football club. Celtic were 70 years old when he joined them yet life for Glasgow’s Catholic Irish from whom the club still largely drew its support hadn’t improved much. We were still barred from many white collar trades and we were still disproportionately represented in Scotland’s prison community. Our cultural reputation remained edged with a patina of disdain: we were still thought lazy, ill-educated and unclean, even though we were, at that point, on the cusp of a cultural and civic breakthrough. McNeill seemed to embody our aspirations for a better future for our children; the sum of our hopes.

If we’d had the opportunity to design a champion for our community we would have produced Billy McNeill. He was handsome and eloquent and his bearing suggested something of pride. Certainly, he was good at football but he also seemed to have that which all natural leaders have. It wasn’t about being Catholic or the son of Irish and Lithuanian immigrants; it was about being all of these things finally coming together in a Scottish skin with a Scottish outlook. The team he led to sporting greatness in Lisbon in 1967 straddled both sides of Scotland’s religious divide and, perhaps for the first time, our people began to feel comfortable in our Scottish skin. In those moments Billy McNeill and the players he led embodied something of what a multi-cultural Scotland at ease with itself would aspire to be in the future.

Russell Leadbetter on Billy Mcneill: Hail Cesar, legend, leader and Lisbon lion

Perhaps you can become overly sentimental about all of this and imbue it with more socio-political meaning than it really has. When Mr Greig laid those flowers at the feet of his departed friend and adversary it did signify a bond forged in the heat of a sporting and cultural battle. But maybe the tears which greeted his tribute were those that spring from witnessing the grief of an old man mourning the passing of his friend. And that it simply represented many such silent partings that take place in all of our communities. Maybe it conveyed something of our shared humanity in the face of which all of our capriciously tribal loyalties are rendered meaningless.

On Billy McNeill’s death others have spoken about the passing of an era that we won’t see again; when there was a heightened sense of fairness and human decency in the way that humans interacted with each other. It’s a rosy picture, fuelled by understandable sentiment. When Mr McNeill and Celtic were in their pomp the patterns of inequality that had disfigured Scotland for centuries were grievously present. Half a century later very little has changed. The communities which suffered most multi-deprivation in 1967 and from which Scottish football still draws heavily remain trapped in this wretched cycle. The same streets still suffer early death, ill-health and job discrimination. Billy McNeill and John Greig and the other working class giants of their era seemed to transcend all of this. More than 50 years later the inequality that blighted the lives of those who loved them remains embedded in British society.

Billy McNeill - 1940-2019