Many will write, and are writing, of their own memories of Cesar. I doubt I will add anything particularly noteworthy here to the vast sea of outpouring that we’re seeing right now. But his family asked that we tell his stories, sing his songs, and help celebrate his life. This is my way of honouring their wishes.
I didn’t know Billy, I never even met him I merely stood near him in awe a couple of times. I never saw him play, I barely remember him as a manager, but nevertheless today feels like a great loss to me as it does to everyone with any connection to Celtic or even Scottish football.
I’m too young to remember Billy McNeill as a player and as captain of Celtic. His last game in the Scottish Cup final of 1975 came a few years before I was even born. Indeed, I was only a couple of years old when he left the manager’s office for the final time in his first stint as manager so that period is effectively before my time too.
But he was the Celtic manager on the day I was born, and indeed Celtic won the match they played on that very day.
When I first took an interest in football, McNeill had returned to Celtic so he is the first Celtic manager that I remember. Sadly the first game I truly remember is Aberdeen beating his aide on penalties and denying us that third Scottish Cup in a row.
Hopefully something the current Celtic team will finally set right in the coming weeks.
Sadly we didn’t win any more trophies under McNeill, but I was still sad when he left and Liam Brady took his place. By the time I finally got to Celtic Park for my first ever visit, Brady was half way through his first season in charge.
But you don’t grow up as a Celtic fan without knowing your history. Indeed, part of the joy for me of being a Celtic fan is learning of the stories, the magic within the club.
It’s never been just the story of 106 major honours, that’s the “what”. It’s the “how” those honours were won that tell the true story of Celtic, the journeys that took us to those successes. When you think that Billy McNeill was directly involved in almost a third of those across our near 131 year history, that is a truly remarkable record to behold.
And he was right at the heart of so many of them. It was his towering header against Dunfermline Athletic in the 1965 Scottish Cup final that simultaneously ended an eight year drought without a trophy and started the most successful period in the club’s history. Over the next decade he would lift almost every single league championship as we surpassed Willie Maley’s six in a row record with another three. The League Cup was lifted five times in a row in that spell too.
Of course, 105 of those honours pale into insignificance when compared with undoubtedly the most iconic image in Scottish football history. Cesar, standing triumphant in the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon, the shiny new European Cup held aloft. We might not even have made it there had it not been for the last minute towering header winner that McNeill scored in the second leg of the quarter final against Vojvodina.
His spell as manager had its own remarkable stories too. Last season we saw ten men win at Ibrox and demoralise one of our nearest rivals and a few years earlier we also saw a ten man Celtic team come from behind to earn a Scottish Cup replay at that same venue, but under McNeill we had ten men come from behind to win and clinch a league title against Rangers.
Perhaps most romantically of all, McNeill’s second stint as manager saw him return north after a disappointing time at Aston Villa to join a disappointing Celtic team about to embark on their centenary season. Disappointment soon vanished as Celtic went on to win a league and Scottish Cup double, often in the most dramatic of circumstances. To me, Henry Smith is the guy whose joggie bottoms didn’t fit in the Tennant Sixes, but to a generation of Celtic fans he’s “drop the ball”.
I wish I could have memories of all of these events. I don’t even remember his final trophy as manager, the Scottish Cup final of 1989, but I feel like I’m still part of it all because I’ve seen it all and heard it all so many times over. We are fiercely proud of our history, and particularly of the men who helped make it all possible. There are none so great in that illustrious history as Billy McNeill.
Of the eleven men who took on and beat Internazionale on that glorious day in Lisbon, we’ve now lost five. McNeill joins Bobby Murdoch, Ronny Simpson, Jimmy Johnstone and Tommy Gemmell in what I’m pretty sure is now the best five-a-side team in the after life. Managed by Jock Stein of course.
It’s nearly 52 years since Lisbon. The Lions aren’t getting any younger. The dementia that has eventually taken Billy from us is also, sadly, affecting the man who scored the winner that day, Stevie Chalmers. On the other hand, thankfully, Jim Craig, John Clark and Bertie Auld look as healthy as ever as they have paid tribute to their friend at Celtic Park today while Bobby Lennox was interviewed in his Ayrshire home today as well. I’m pretty sure Australia agrees with Willie Wallace too. I hope all that continues for a long, long time to come.
But the time will eventually come, as it does to us all, when they are all gone. On that day, as with this, we will mourn but we will also rejoice. We will remember, we will reminisce. We will tell the future generations of Celtic fans of the greatest Celtic team of all, and all the men who played in it.
And we will forever be proud of the day that Celtic’s captain Billy McNeill held the European Cup up high.
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)