LEADER, Lion, legend. And an awfully nice man. That’s some epitaph.

All of us in this trade will pay tribute to Billy McNeill over the next few days and attempt to do justice to one of Scotland’s greatest sons, an iconic figure in football and, for me, someone who epitomised everything that is good about Celtic Football Club.

Even if the great Hugh McIlvanney was still with us, this genius of the written word would find it impossible to sum up the life of the working class boy from Lanarkshire who would go on to make sporting history.

Imagine being a hero for 60 years or so. And yet this is a man who never stopped being a hero to whoever he met.

I am so lucky to be able to say that I got to meet him a few times and even got to know him just a little bit. This was absolutely nothing to do with me but it said everything about William McNeill MBE. He had time for everyone.

The picture of Big Billy holding aloft the European Cup on that afternoon in Lisbon has been a difficult one to look at since the news came through. How can that handsome legend be no longer with us?

As my dad said in message: “Will we ever see his likes again.” Quite simply the answer to that is no.

It says a lot for Big Billy that he regretted the other players were not able to join him for the trophy presentation after the defeat of Inter Milan. It was never about him. It was always about the team. It was always about Celtic.

And he has always been Big Billy. I have never heard anyone call him McNeill. John Greig will forever be Greigy. Few others are spoken about like this. It’s called respect. It’s called love.

I’m too young to have seen him as a player. Thankfully, there is enough footage of all that team which gives those of us not fortunate enough to watch them in the flesh an opportunity to see what they were all about.

They were pretty decent.

Big Billy wasn’t as good a player as Jimmy Johnstone, Bobby Lennox or Bobby Murdoch. Some have told me that in terms of reading a game, John Clark was his superior. But nobody else could have led that team.

As Jock Stein said himself, the Celtic he made would not have been the same without Billy McNeill as captain. Has there been a better Celt? That he was a nice bloke with no airs or graces made him even more legendary.

I have written this story before so apologies, but I think it’s okay to tell it again.

Celtic played Benfica in Lisbon. It’s the next day at the airport. Big Billy is leading, of course, the press pack through the to the departure gates. As luck would have it, the security guards in charge of frisking us happened to be drop-dead gorgeous Portuguese females.

Well, the big man was given a thorough search. And when it was over, he turned to us and said: “Lads, that’s the second best thing to happen to me in this city.”

We fell about laughing.

My first memories of the man are as Celtic manager. His record is remarkable and strangely overlooked to an extent.

He won four league titles, three Scottish Cups and the League Cup. He finished above Alex Ferguson four times our of five in his first spell. He bought Murdo McLeod, Frank McGarvey and Davie Provan for £100,000 each.

Ten men won the league. The Centenary double season. Three cup final wins over Rangers. Defeating Real Madrid. Giving debuts to Pat Bonner, Paul McStay and Charlie Nicholas.

That was all Big Billy as Celtic manager. There are some top ten moments in there for supporters of a certain age.

And it was all done with dignity. Ally McCoist used to call him Mr McNeill. Rangers’ statement yesterday called him Mr McNeil. That was classy. Nobody had a bad word about him and now he has passed, nobody ever will,

The Scottish Cup final on May 25 should be a tribute to Big Billy. It will be on this most special date in Celtic history that a third Treble could be won. The supporters will surely come up with something to mark the occasion.

Celtic Park this Saturday is going to be hugely emotional. There will be some who haven’t cried since they were kids fighting back tears.

Billy McNeill was one of them. Like Tommy Burns, the supporter who got lucky. I would argue with that. The Celtic support were the lucky ones.

When you count friendlies, testimonials and what have you, he played and managed in perhaps 1500 games for Celtic. Probably more.

To his ex-players, he was still boss. I know the likes of Andy Walker and Pat Bonner were regular visitors. Many more would go as see Big Billy and while he wasn’t well, they would talk football to their manager.

I thought Charlie Nicholas’s interview on Sky yesterday was particularly revealing. He could hardly string two words together when talking about the man who persuaded him to sign a contract when his mum wanted him to be a car mechanic.

He wasn’t the only one to shed a tear or two. And I include myself.

It was tough watching Big Billy at his statue unveiling a few years back. He was clearly struggling but it must have been a wonderful day for his family, especially wife Liz, who were all there.

The warmth from the crowd that day and all the players was sincere and when Jim Craig spoke to the crowd about “his captain...his brother” there was not a dry eye on London Road.

Nobody is bigger than Celtic. Big Billy nearly was.

As John Grieg, the greatest ever Ranger said: “He was a gentleman. Billy was respected because he was a really decent guy. He conducted himself in a great way. He was always a great advert for Celtic Football Club. He will not be forgotten by a lot of people, especially the Celtic supporters.”

Well said, sir.

Rest easy, Big Billy. Thank you for everything.