LISBON is imperishable. The memories of that unique day will simply be amplified by the sad passing of Billy McNeill, and the echoes of triumph will still resound. The great captain’s death is a blow to friends, family and football lovers, but also a reminder of an achievement that lifted Scottish football out of an almost suffocating parochialism and fed our European ambitions for ever after.

Although it was a Celtic triumph, it fed into the possibilities for any other club reaching out for prizes which we too often thought were unattainable. Willie Waddell and Alex Ferguson read the runes of their success well, and followed suit, even though not quite at the same level. Celtic had broken the cast. We all felt different after Lisbon. And at the heart of it were a manager and captain whose bond was unshakeable and ambition unbounded.

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Although from Billy there was never any braggadocio. His lingo I always found sensible and well-grounded. And in truth I got to know him better after he retired, because it was then I marked him out almost immediately as a potential broadcaster, which indeed I nurtured him eventually to be. I remember the moment well. It was in the New Orleans restaurant just after Celtic had won the Scottish Cup in the final against Airdrie in 1975. They had won 3-1, and as I recall he strolled through the game.

When I was interviewing him, for the BBC programme I was hosting from that place, he suddenly announced he was retiring. We could scarcely believe it, although delighted that he had broken the news on our watch.

Even then I thought he had simply quit too soon at the age of 35, which of course is absurdly young by today’s standards. He made little of that and eventually when he went into management, I still kept at him about a broadcasting future, if he ever completely called it a day. He eventually did, and so began a long association with him as a co-commentator for me, which took in a wide variety of European games and the World Cup in Spain in 1982.

I was the beneficiary, not just of his command of the game and his use of language which always helped me out in moments of indecision, but of his great ability as a raconteur. He opened up new vistas to me on the paths to Lisbon and of the Stein management prowess.

There was never anything indiscreet in what he recounted, but he did deliver some insights into how progress was made to that ultimate triumph. He always stressed for me how important the trip to the States was prior to the all-conquering season of 1966-67. This was about bonding, about developing intimacies that would make their actions on the field instinctive and flexible.

He was modesty incarnate though, and never played up his own huge contributions, especially that of his most famous goal. Eventually it did surface in one of our travels. It was an evening just before we commentated on Scotland against Brazil in Seville. We both dined with Jimmy Hill, the long-chinned critic of the Scots, whom Billy ribbed mercilessly after the Englishman had complained about not being included in the Queen’s Honours list.

But he also expanded on the famous Vojvodina game. Hill had said something to the effect that scoring so late was something of a fluke. Billy made it clear that the game was the most difficult European match he had played in by far, including the final against Inter.

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I had been on the commentary position that night above the old "Jungle" whose nervous reverberations were almost shaking the platform. The game was nearing its conclusion.

I recall Jock Stein telling me that with seconds left he had turned to Sean Fallon and said, "It looks like bloody Rotterdam"- meaning a play-off game with the Yugoslavians. Nothing had broken the Vojvodina defence. So the corner taken by Charlie Gallagher on the right seemed like nothing more than another gambit that would fail. Billy’s head, though, created a new era for Celtic. It was as simple and as dramatic as that. The ball flew into the net with the characteristic fury that was the hallmark of his headed goals.

It is not that the goal has been air-brushed out of Celtic’s history but the glittering images of Lisbon tend to obscure the darker, dingier atmosphere of that night in the east end of Glasgow and of a single moment that in itself was enough for immortality.

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Of Lisbon itself Billy always spoke to me as if he was recounting a family outing, at the end of which they got to bring home a memento. Of all the time I heard him being bombarded with questions about that day, from those other footballers he met on his journeys with me around Europe, there was even a reluctance to say much about it.

Indeed, when he was Celtic manager, just before a Scottish Cup final with Rangers, I went to interview him in his home and asked if we could film his European Cup winners’ medal. He couldn’t find it, despite Liz his wife searching about the house. They then discovered his daughters had been using it with some of his other medals, as currency, to play shops in the garden with pals. This in itself was a delightful summary of a family-led by a man whose triumphs had not put their heads in the clouds.

In an age when we despair of proper leadership by our politicians, all of us who knew Billy should feel privileged to have known a man who could have taught them the very basics.

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