A lone figure stood gracing the skyline. Towering over the rest of the world, one man stood awaiting the greatest prize available in club football. This man was William “Billy” McNeill. Cesar.
Billy McNeill was born on the 2nd march 1940. Born the same year as Pinocchio, few knew the boy from Bellshill would be as legendary today as Walt Disney’s character is. Part Irish, part Lithuanian, Billy instantly began to aim for his one dream in life. To play the game he loved.
Playing football all his school life, he signed for Blantyre Victoria, a junior team based near Parkhead. It was from here, that in 1957 he was signed by the club of his dreams. A rugged central defender, little expected that the greatest defender ever to pass Parkhead’s gates had been found.
Billy grew up in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, and used to be a fan of his local side, Motherwell. Attending Our Lady’s high school, it was here that he discovered his talent for the beautiful game. From the school team, he moved on to Blantyre Victoria, where he was eventually spotted by scout Bobby Evans. He broke his way into the Celtic first team, and became first choice centre half. In his first years at the club, the coaching he received was poor, and with ongoing management issues, he came close to joining Tottenham Hotspur. However, luckily for Celtic one man arrived to change everything. That man, was Jock Stein.
It is seen as a pivotal moment in the life of Billy McNeill, the day Jock Stein entered Parkhead. Together, they masterminded the greatest decade in the history of the club. Despite many saying it was Stein’s arrival alone that cemented Celtic’s place in the history books, it is very clear the outcome could have been very different without Cesar leading the Lions.
It all began in 1965, with a win in the Scottish cup final against Dunfermline. The club having not won a trophy since 1957, faced Dunfermline, in a tie most expected them to lose. However, with eight minutes to go, McNeill rose highest in a packed penalty area, and rifled a header into the back of the net. From here, the foundations had been laid for Celtic to power on to greatness. With Stein’s intelligence and sensational tactics, combined with McNeill’s will to win, an unstoppable force had been created.
Being in as great a team as he was, many believe he flourished, as he would never have done if circumstances had been different. In defence along with John Clark, Ronnie Simpson, and Tommy Gemmell, McNeill was able to grace the field along with some true quality. For this, each player achieved full potential, something that was pivotal in the success the club was to have.
In the 1965-66 domestic campaign, Celtic were victorious under the leadership of McNeill. Cantering to success, many were beginning to see the potential the current team had. With outstanding defenders and unstoppable forwards, especially Jimmy Johnstone, the new crop of talent Stein had was about to come good.
In the 1965-66 European Cup Winners cup campaign, the first signs of a truly quality side were shown. Unproven, the Celtic side managed to reach the semi-finals, before defeat to English giants Liverpool. From eyewitness accounts of the match, Celtic were robbed of victory, with a Bobby Lennox goal disallowed, despite being yards on side. It was from here, that the eyes of Europe were raised at what was being built in the East End of Glasgow.
As the song says, “ten years they had gone and so, to Portugal we had to go, to play the team, that Italy adored. Celtic went out to attack. They won the big cup and they brought it back. It’s the first time it had been, on British shores”. In 1967, the peak of the big man from Bellshill career was upon him. After valiantly reaching the finals, destroying teams such as Vodjvodina and Dukla Prague, Celtic travelled to Lisbon on the 25th of May to play Inter Milan. Going a goal down, the Celts fought back, and created history, with a 2-1 win. The team was now immortalised, forever being, The Lisbon Lions. As captain, Billy had to receive the trophy. It was here the most Iconic picture in the history of Glasgow Celtic was created. A lone figure on the stage in the National stadium, the trophy was lifted aloft for the ecstatic travelling support to see. Billy McNeill was a changed man. A true leader of men. Cesar.
The following Club world championship was definitely a low point in the history of Celtic football club. After a brutal number of assaults between Celtic and Racing club players, the game finished in shame with the Argentineans coming out ‘victorious’. It is said, however, that only one man kept his dignity that night. Unwilling to lose his reputation as ‘Cesar’, Billy was composed throughout the match, and even swapped shirts with an opposing player at the end. This ensured his status, as a true Celtic legend.
On domestic duties, Celtic were unstoppable, and it was this spell that led to the first 9 in a row. With Billy Leading the side, none of the Scottish clubs were a match, with even Rangers unable to challenge. It was once again on the European front, Celtic were to strongly impress the critics.
In the 1969-70 European cup campaign, Celtic marched to the final once more. It is however the semi-final with the great Don Revies’ Leeds United side, that is most fondly remembered by Celtic and Scottish football fans alike. The first ‘battle of Britain’, the powerful English against the Talented Scots. On this occasion, Talent was to prove essential, with an astonishing display of attacking football leading the Glasgow side to a 3-1 aggregate win. However, defeat in the final to Feyenoord, led to in the words of Billy McNeill, “the club lost a lot of self-belief after this defeat.”
Celtic again reached European cup semi-finals in 1972 and 74, but never again reached the glory of Lisbon. In 1975, he played his last game for the club, but the relationship between the two, was not to end here.
In 1978, Billy was given the unwanted task of replacing the “immortal” Jock Stein. In a strange set of affairs, the transfer of power was a strange time in the history of the club. However, in his first season, he went toe to toe with Rangers, and the destiny of the title boiled down to a final day Old firm encounter. With just ten men, the side managed to seal the title, sending the Celtic fans into raptures. In 1980, he entered the European cup as manager for the first time. Unfortunately, despite powering on to the quarterfinals, they were defeated 3-2 on aggregate by Spanish giants Real Madrid.
It was unfortunately a time that Celtic achieved little, with the New firm taking control in Scottish football. This, combined with major disagreements with the board, mainly over he transfer of Charlie Nicholas, led Billy to quit the club 1983.
However, after a stint in England, Billy returned home in 1987. In the centenary season, it was essential the club achieved some form of success. With a good mix of buying and selling players, Cesar led the team to the league and cup double. However, the spell is best remembered for the transfer saga of Mo Johnston, and his move to Rangers shocked both McNeill and Celtic to the core. The final straw for the board was the signing of Martin Hayes in 1990. An expensive flop led to poor relations between the board and McNeill. Combined with a lack of success, the board had had enough. In 1991, he was sacked from his role. In shocking circumstances, the club legend was treated scandalously. It was a horrible end to the Legends time at the club.
However, in 2009, it was announced Billy would return to the club as an ambassador. The great man was more than willing to represent the club he had come to love world-wide.
Billy McNeill is an all time great of Glasgow Celtic Football club. Leading the club to 9 in a row, and most famously to glory in the European cup, the man has been immortalised in history. Forever, Cesar.
Name: William McNeill
DOB: 2nd March 1940
POB: Bellshill, Scotland
1957-75 Celtic 486 games [22 gls]
1961-72 Scotland 29 games [3 gls]
1977 – Clyde
1977/78 – Aberdeen
1978/83 – Celtic
1983/86 – Manchester City
1986/87 – Aston Villa
1987/91 – Celtic
1998 – Hibernian (caretaker)
Originally published in Issue 10 of our football fanzine, The 12th Man, by Peter Joyce.