HE was never McNeill. Other men, lesser men, are known in football by their surnames but a few are better than that. It was always Big Billy or Cesar in less formal occasions. Celtic’s greatest ever captain, the man who won more trophies for the club than anyone, was a big man in every sense. He didn’t so much command rooms as the air itself. This is an extraordinary human being.
As a centre-half, he was a superb header of the ball. Never the quickest, it was his reading of situations which helped him become a genuine world class defender.
But it was Big Billy’s leadership which marked him out as a man who commanded and got respect from all. Jock Stein always said that the Celtic he built would not have been the same without his inspirational captain.
As player and manager over two spells, Billy McNeill won 30 major trophies for Celtic, almost a third of the club’s total haul of 101, and played 790 games for his football club. Neither record will ever be surpassed. Oh, and he played every single minute.
An impressive statue now greets visitors to Celtic Park of the Lisbon Lions captain holding aloft the cup with the big ears. He said later that he was surprised he could lift anything at all given how exhausted he was and that he wished his team-mates had been with him when he collected the trophy but there is something fitting that it is him, Big Billy, standing proud as the first British football player to get his hands on that most wonderful of prizes.
“Having seen the footage of the presentation so often I know what happened, but I don’t have any distinct recollection of it,” said the man himself a few years ago.
“The Portuguese police didn’t think it was safe for us to go back across the pitch so they took us around the outside of the stadium in a police car – but first it seemed like every policeman on duty had their photo taken with the cup. Not with us, but with the cup.”
There were 12,000 Celtic fans in Lisbon on that May afternoon – or three million if you believe all the stories – but you didn’t have to be there to visualise what happened at the end of the match.
“The photograph of Billy lifting the European Cup is probably the most iconic image in Celtic history,” says Davie Hay, a Celtic great himself and a former team-mate. “He is Celtic’s best captain ever, that will always be the case, and he had no peer in the air either defensively or in an attacking sense because he scored more than his fair share of goals.
“And they were big goals we well. He got the winner in the 1965 Scottish Cup Final against Dunfermline which we know now began the greatest era for Celtic.
“So as a player, Billy was superb and as a man he, for me, symbolises everything about Celtic. He led by example, everyone looked up to him, that’s both his team-mates and the supporters.”
It was Stein, then a coach with the youth players, who persuaded the schoolboy McNeill to sign for Celtic.
The McNeill family were apparently asked: “Is it alright if he’s very cheeky that ah can skelp ‘em?” There was never much need for skelping.
“He was a presence in every room he walked into and was even more so out on the park,” said Hay. “As a young player, to go into that dressing room full of my heroes could have been intimidating but Billy and the other guys were so helpful.
“I looked up to him. I had so much respect for the stature of the man he was. Billy was a great team-mate. He carried himself so well. You wanted to be like him. Even before I joined the club it was Billy who I really loved as a player.
“Billy was great on the training ground. He was a huge help to people such as myself. A genuine gentleman.
“He and Big Jock had a really special bond. They went way back and while the boss was the boss, Billy was his main man and I think he leaned on him a lot.”
The genuine warmness for all parts of Scotland, regardless of what team they supporters, directed towards the McNeill family when news broke of Billy’s illness served as a reminder of his standing in Scotland. There are few more loved and respected.
And as the 50th anniversary is here, Celtic supporters everywhere should say a quiet prayer of thanks that Billy McNeill remains part of their lives and was captain the day their team became European champions.
The last word has to go to the man himself.
“We came out of the dressing room through a courtyard and into the tunnel. They held us there for a while. I remember turning around and the Italian team were looking magnificent.
“It’s quite an inspiring strip: blue and black stripes, black shorts, black stockings – plus their tanned legs, their athleticism and the handsome Italian faces.
“Out of nowhere Bertie Auld, a real character, started singing ‘The Celtic Song’ and we all joined in. You should have seen the expressions on the faces of the Italians.”