At Celtic Park this Saturday, December 19, Celtic Football Club will unveil a statue to Billy McNeill. The event will take place at 1.00pm outside the front of the ground.
Billy captained and managed Celtic from 1957 to 1991, arguably encompassing their most successful period.
His Celtic credentials are frankly more reminiscent of a bygone age and something we will never see again.
He was a “one club” man who played for Celtic 790 times, winning 9 Scottish League titles, 7 Scottish Cups and 6 Scottish League Cups, and of course, the European Cup in 1967. As impressive as that may appear, he also captained the side throughout this entire, phenomenal period; Captain in those days meant much more than shouting “heads or tails” and posing for the pre kick-off snaps. He truly led the team and was Jock Stein’s assistant on the field of play.
In the modern domestic era, where Celtic often seem to assured of league triumph, it is easy to assume that things were ever thus. Prior to the Stein and McNeill era however, Celtic had not won the league title for 12 years – a footballing lifetime for many fans. Further, during those 12 barren years for Celtic, the Scottish League title had been won by no less than 5 different clubs: Rangers, Hearts, Aberdeen, Dundee and Kilmarnock. Indeed, in the three years prior to that the league was won by a different club each year:Celtic, Rangers and Hibernian. In short, in a very competitive football environment, Stein was the general who ushered in a true revolutionary period in Scottish football and Billy McNeill was his trusted captain. This correspondent attended the 1965 Scottish Cup Final where Billy McNeill scored the winning goal that started the Stein & McNeill era. I never realized what was unfolding before my eyes, but maybe none of us ever know that.
Iconic images from that time of Billy McNeill scoring dramatic headed goals to win games and trophies seem almost commonplace, but the most dramatic image of all is of him holding aloft the European Cup standing imperiously, high in the stands of the Stadium of Light, in Lisbon, Portugal on a sunny evening in May 1967. Secretly, I hope that that image has been inspirational for this Saturday.
For our family, Billy McNeill meant much more. In 2012, Martin, Tony and I traveled to Scotland from North Carolina to see Celtic play once again. Tony had been diagnosed with ALS the previous October and we wanted to make it the best trip we could manage. The whole experience was wonderful and exceeded our expectations, but the most memorable event was unplanned. Outside Celtic Park that day, about an hour or so before kick off, we were unexpectedly introduced to Billy McNeill. We had been standing at Jimmy Johnstone’s statue with his son James, and before we knew it we found ourselves chatting away to a Celtic legend. We had never met Billy before, but we felt immediately at ease in his company. Billy was completely unaware of Tony’s illness, but connected instantly and warmly with him, as these pictures show. We treasure the images and the memories.
We cannot be happier that Celtic have decided to honour Billy. We are just sorry that we cannot be at the event to share that emotion with all the other fans and of course, the man himself.
Our cover picture shows 75 year old Billy at the Stadium of Light, Lisbon, Portugal – where he won the European Cup with Celtic.
NO ONE WALKS ALONE