Ian McNeill – Aberdeen footballer who became talent scout for Chelsea

Born: February 24, 1932;

Died: October 6, 2017

JOHN McKeand “Ian” McNeill, who has died aged 85 following a lengthy battle against dementia, was one of that legion of Scottish footballers who was enticed south into English football, did not scale the highest peaks as a player but proved himself a natural as a successful coach, manager and talent-spotter.

Originally from Baillieston in Glasgow, he was spotted by Aberdeen super scout Bobby Calder playing for the Scotland Under-18 Youth team, and for junior side Bridgeton Waverley. Calder sent him north to Aberdeen in 1949, as a 17-year-old. His career was interrupted by national service in Kenya and, by the time he returned, the 5ft 5in “Mighty Atom” faced stiff competition for a place in the Aberdeen midfield, from the likes of Scottish internationalists Archie Baird – then winding down his career - George Hamilton and Harry Yorston, plus Under-23 cap Bobby Wishart. He still made ten first-team appearances in a very good Aberdeen side, and was part of the squad which won the Dons' first Scottish League title in 1955.

He was reserve to Yorston and when manager Dave Halliday, who had left Aberdeen to manage Leicester City, offered him the chance to move south, he took it, although he later admitted that had he known Yorston would so abruptly announce his retirement at only 28, he would have stayed at Pittodrie.

McNeill played for the Foxes, for Brighton and Hove Albion and for Southend United, before returning to Scotland to play for and manage Ross County, then a Highland League side. He managed them when they won the Highland League for the first time in 1967.

This success saw him invited to manage Wigan Athletic, then a non-league club, before he had a spell managing Southern League Salisbury. He returned to Ross County in 1971, before going back for a second spell at Wigan in 1976, during which he led them into the football league.

His work at Wigan saw him invited to become assistant manager to John Neal at Chelsea, and the pair led the London club back to the top-flight in England. McNeill was by now establishing a reputation as a talent spotter signing future England cap Kerry Dixon, future Scotland caps Pat Nevin, David Speedie, Steve Clarke, Gordon Durie, Craig Burley, Billy Dodds, Duncan Shearer and Scotland Under-21 cap Joe McLaughlin for the Stamford Bridge club. He had a spell as caretaker boss with Chelsea when illness side-lined Neal, before leaving to become a manager in his own right with Shrewsbury Town in 1987.

He was perhaps happiest as a number two, joining Bruce Rioch in this capacity at Millwall in 1990, after which he concentrated on scouting, a role for which he showed a rare talent, working with such clubs as Bolton Wanderers – where he unearthed John McGinlay and Andy Walker, Leeds United, for whom using his extensive network of continental coaching contacts, he discovered Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Norwich City, as well as former clubs Wigan and Chelsea.

Such was McNeill's reputation as a talent scout, he was still to be found on the touchlines, assessing potential stars, in his eighth decade - indeed, it was failing health rather than a lack of enthusiasm for the job which finally removed him from the touchlines. It is reckoned his ability to find unpolished diamonds made the clubs for which he scouted many millions of pounds in transfer fees.

He finally retired in 2006, returning to Aberdeen, home town of his wife Sheila, whom he had met at the Beach Ballroom and married in 1955. She survives him, along with son Ian, daughter Carol and his grand-children.