BILLY McNeill was, contrary to popular belief, given the nickname Cesar as a young man in the early 1960s after a trip to the cinema with a gaggle of his Celtic team mates to watch the heist movie Ocean’s 11.

“I had just bought an Austin A35,” he recalled years later. “It was a wee pokey car, by no means a sparkling new one. In the film, the character played by Cesar Romero is the getaway driver. I was the only one who drove at that time. John Colrain said: ‘The big lad! We’ll call him Cesar!’”

Yet, over time, after he became the captain of the first British team to lift the European Cup in 1967 especially, the misconception gradually arose that McNeill had been handed the moniker due to parallels with Julius Caesar.

The famous photograph of him standing emotionless on a plinth high in the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon following the historic 2-1 win over Inter Milan and holding aloft the greatest prize in the club game as the supporters who had invaded the pitch following the final whistle celebrated far below him has simply served to perpetuate the myth.

It was, though, an understandable mistake, and perhaps a more fitting comparison, to make.


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McNeill, like the Roman general, was a leader of men, an individual whose achievements were legendary, a formidable adversary in the heat of battle, an iconic figure with presence who commanded respect and even, in those who faced him and those who served under him, engendered fear.

With his sad passing yesterday at the age of 79 after a lengthy illness, Scottish football has lost a true colossus.

That tributes to the former Parkhead centre half, captain and manager have come from every club in Scotland and even further afield, not just the one that he spent his entire professional career at and played a record 822 games for between 1957 and 1975, has shown the high esteem that he was held in.

That supporters of Rangers, who were unable to compete with the Jock Stein side that McNeill was a key component of for almost a decade, were heartfelt in their condolences has spoken volumes about the qualities of a remarkable human being.

That has as much to do with McNeill the man as McNeill the player and McNeill the manager. It is not just his exceptional play on the park and the myriad trophies he lifted that he will be remembered for. It is how he conducted himself off the pitch that will live long in the memory. Gentleman is the word that has been most frequently used to describe him in the past 24 hours. Celtic have never had a finer ambassador and never will.


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The humble upbringing that he had in Bellshill in Lanarkshire was perhaps responsible for him remaining grounded throughout his life despite the success he enjoyed. His mother Nellie was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants and his Dundonian father Jimmy was an army physical education instructor. His family lived in a miners’ row cottage during his early childhood.

He showed considerable early promise playing for Our Lady’s High School in Motherwell, where he regularly attended matches at Fir Park as a youngster, and caught the attention of Stein, then the Celtic reserve team coach, after playing for the Scotland against England in a schoolboys international in 1957. He immediately sought to sign him and famously asked his mother “if he steps out of line would it be alright if I give him a skelp?”

But Stein departed for his first managerial job at Dunfermline in 1960 and McNeill, who made his first team debut aged just 18 in 1958, endured a difficult start to his playing days. To such an extent, in fact, that he even considered leaving.

The first of the 23 trophies that he won as a player – and only Kenny Dalglish, Ryan Giggs, Bobby Lennox and Paul Scholes have won more in the history of British football – in 1965 just a month after Stein had returned as manager was one of the most important of his career and was one he had a big hand in.


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He got on the end of a Charlie Gallagher cross into the Dunfermline penalty box with just eight minutes remaining in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden in 1965 and headed into the net to seal a 3-2 win for Celtic and secure their first piece of major silverware in eight long years. That victory heralded the beginning of a halcyon era.

Celtic would win their first league title in 12 years the following season and qualify for the European Cup as a result. Triumphs over Zurich, Nantes, Vojvodina and Dukla Prague preceded the triumph over the great Inter side, who had won the tournament in two of the previous three years, of that time.

McNeill was the captain of a team that has since been immortalised as The Lisbon Lions; the others were Ronnie Simpson, Jim Craig, John Clark, Tommy Gemmell, Jimmy Johnstone, Bertie Auld, Bobby Murdoch, Lennox, Stevie Chalmers and Willie Wallace.

He was never considered to be the best player of that fabled line-up despite his many strengths. Gemmell, Johnstone and Murdoch could justifiably lay claim to that mantle. But his influence should not be underplayed. He was a good organiser, a strong communicator and, crucially for somebody who was the skipper of a group of such disparate characters, pleasant and popular.

Stein, who forged a strong friendship with McNeill that endured until his death, was certainly in no doubts about his enormous importance. “What makes a great player?” he once said. “He’s the one who brings out the best in others. When I am saying that I’m talking about Billy McNeill.”


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McNeill played on for another eight years until the Scottish Cup final in 1975 when, after a 3-1 win over Airdrie, he was lifted onto the shoulders of his team mates and applauded by the Celtic supporters. It would not be long before he returned. After brief tenures with Clyde and Aberdeen, he succeeded his mentor as manager three years later.

The claim that McNeill, perhaps due to his brief stays at Aston Villa and Manchester City or possibly as a consequence of the fact that he was unable to prevent Rangers from becoming the dominant force in the country in his second spell at Celtic, was an unsuccessful coach is an utter fallacy.

Murdo MacLeod, the midfielder who was one of his first signings, can testify that he had an aura that rubbed off on the members of his squad. “There was something about him,” he said. “You felt taller, stronger, whenever he was in charge of the Celtic team. Going out, you always played for Billy McNeill. It was just a fabulous feeling.”

His side beat Rangers in a thrilling title decider at Parkhead at the end of his first season despite being reduced to 10 men, reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup and won three titles in five years during his first stint. Then, after returning in 1987, he led them to the League Championship and Scottish Cup double in their centenary season.

The ineptitude and interference of the old Celtic board, whose shameful mismanagement led the club to the brink of bankruptcy three years after he departed, was a constant bone of contention during his time as manager. But he served as a club ambassador under the new regime for the last 10 years of his life. He also attended the unveiling of a statue in his honour outside Parkhead in 2015 despite his struggle with dementia.

Having a happy home life was always of greater importance to Billy McNeill than his footballing fortunes. He and his wife Liz had five children, Susan, Carol, Libby, Paula and Martyn, as well as eight grandchildren, who he doted on.

But the death of “Big Billy” will be mourned for a long time by the Celtic footballing family.