THE Celtic team of 1988, Double-winners in the club’s centenary year, will always hold a special place in the hearts of their supporters. And for the players who achieved the feat, there was no one more integral to their success than their manager, the late, great Billy McNeill.

Just as McNeill inspired that generation of players to lift the league and the Scottish Cup that season, so too can his memory inspire the current crop of players to grasp their own place in Celtic folklore by winning the Scottish Cup and subsequently, delivering the first ever treble Treble in the history of the Scottish game.

That’s the view of one of the heroes of the class of ’88, Mark McGhee. Celtic will wear the number five on their shorts at Hampden on Saturday in tribute to their greatest ever captain, as well as a number nine in memory of Stevie Chalmers, the scorer of the winning goal in the European Cup final of 1967.

Far from being cowed by the weight of history on their shoulders though, McGhee believes the Celtic players will be urged by manager Neil Lennon to go out there against Hearts on Saturday and show that they deserve to bear the iconic numbers of the legends who preceded them.

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“I think Lenny will use the tribute they are paying as a positive thing,” McGhee said. “He will mention it and tell the players they should be absolutely honoured to be part of the team that is doing that on the day.

“Having the privilege of being one of the guys to be allowed to run out there with that on their shorts, Lenny will be using that as a positive emotional thing.

“Billy was everything to us.”

McGhee laughs when he thinks back to a pivotal moment in the centenary season of ’88, and an afternoon when he wasn’t best pleased with his manager.

The striker was named among the substitutes as Celtic took on the same side they will face this Saturday, Hearts, at the semi-final stage of the tournament. McNeill would get the reaction he was looking for from his striker though, as McGhee stepped off the bench to cancel out a fortuitous opener from former Celtic full-back, the late Brian Whittaker, with just two minutes remaining. In injury time, he would then play a pivotal role in heading the ball down for Andy Walker to blast home the winner from a yard out.

“I remember being a bit gutted that I wasn’t playing,” McGhee said. “You are never happy when you aren’t playing in a game like that. I was champing at the bit to get on, and thankfully I was able to come on and make a difference.

“We had missed some chances, but I wasn’t really looking at the chances that were being missed, and as much as I was gutted not to be playing, there was never any resentment towards the guys who were playing. All the resentment was directed at the manager!

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“But the manager knew that regardless if we were playing or not, we weren’t going to take the huff. Instead, what happened was what Billy would have expected, because we would have been so determined to show that we should have been playing he was likely to get something out of us.

“I scored a lot of goals against Hearts, I used to score quite regularly against them, so the outcome of the game wasn’t really a surprise to me.

“But Billy’s leadership was the catalyst to everything that happened that season because of his standing.

“It was such a big year for the club, and to have Billy there at that time was fundamental to it. He represented everything that everybody was feeling about the club that year, there was such a pride about the place.

“There was a kind of excitement about that year because of the centenary, and to be part of it was incredible. It just felt like Billy was the right man to lead that, and he led it so well.

“Tam Craig was the coach, and big Billy was the manager. But he was just this figure that was there with encouragement and common sense.

“He had the ability to make everybody feel they were playing a role, whether you were playing, or you weren’t, he had that ability just to keep everybody up.”

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His methods of doing so weren’t always appreciated by everyone in the squad, as goalkeeper Packie Bonner would testify.

“Billy would join in training sometimes, and I remember one day he took the gloves off big Packie and was showing him how he should be taking crosses,” said McGhee.

“Big Billy was catching them about three feet off the ground, and big Packie was raging. He would do stuff like that and just lift the lads.

“His record as the captain of Celtic spoke for itself, so you just had a huge amount of respect for him.”

The sight of a Celtic captain lifting the European Cup may firmly be an image from the past, but if Neil Lennon’s side can lift the Scottish Cup on Saturday, McGhee believes that the period of sustained dominance Celtic have enjoyed over the past three seasons will be second only to the heroics of 1967 in the history of the club.

And he believes that Lennon will deserve far more credit than he seems likely to receive should he get these players over that line.

“I think the treble Treble, apart from the European Cup win, outweighs anything that the club have ever done,” he said.

“Even in this day and age, where I know Celtic have huge advantages over everyone else in all sorts of ways, they still have to go and do it.

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“Brendan Rodgers has played his part in that, and now it can’t be underestimated the part Lenny is playing in it.

“It’s too easy to say that Brendan left, and all Lenny had to do was take them over the line, but trust me, there was a huge risk to Lenny’s reputation and his future in taking on that job.

“I don’t think that everyone appreciates that, because there was still a bit of work to be done to get it across the line, and there still is with the game on Saturday.

“No matter what he says or how he acts, he must be feeling a huge amount of responsibility and a huge amount of pressure.

“There’s a lot got to happen before you get to this point, and the likelihood of that all happening again is slim, particularly with Rangers looking to be on their way back to being a stronger force in the game.

“I always say to a player when he comes in at half-time with two goals, it’s not often you’re in a position to get a hat-trick. The first thing you have to do is get those two goals, and in a sense, this is the same, you have to get those two trophies in the bag before you can think of a Treble. Once you get that, then the chance is there that you don’t often get, and especially with this season being a treble Treble.

“I just feel that the pressure and the risk that Lenny took on in order to take the job is to be admired.

“If he achieves it, he deserves a huge amount of credit for the football part in terms of getting it done, but also in handling the pressure and the challenge.”