BILLY McNeill did not get lost too often in what was an illustrious career with Celtic.

The 79-year-old won 31 major trophies in his time as player, captain and manager of the Parkhead side, statistics that underpin not only the success he enjoyed but just how much he got it right.

Still, though, there was the odd wrong turn.

“He could go anywhere in the football world and be recognised because he was so well respected,” said John Clark, a team-mate and friend of McNeill’s since they were 17.

Clark trained, played and socialised with McNeill before then becoming his assistant in McNeill’s managerial spells at Aberdeen and his first stint at Celtic. “I can remember going down to England one time to see a player. We were down at Watford and didn’t have a clue where we were going.

“We had driven down – a really long drive – but couldn’t figure how to get into the ground. We were going around a corner and who comes out his car but Elton John and he recognised him. So we had Elton John showing us where to park because the two of us hadn’t a clue where we were going. We couldn’t believe it.”

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Clark, quiet, mild-mannered and reluctant to bask in any kind of limelight, was McNeill’s central defensive partner at Celtic with McNeill the commanding figure at the heart of Jock Stein’s defence. There was a smile yesterday afternoon at Celtic Park when asked whether he made McNeill look good by doing the unnoticed dirty work beside him, but there is little doubt about the aura McNeill had.

The puffed out chest, the imposing physicality of the Bellshill-born defender and the manner in which leadership came naturally to him had him destined to be a Celtic captain, according to Bertie Auld who recalled the first time he met McNeill.

"I met Billy when he signed for Celtic at 17,” he said. "Jock Stein was the reserves coach and he was standing next to him at the tunnel. Billy was the height of Jock, even at that age. I was introduced to Billy and wished him all the best. He was 17 but you'd have thought he was 25 or 30 with the way he handled himself. Billy was majestic as a player. John Clark and Billy was like me and my shadow.”

That symbiosis that reflected so well on Celtic did not carry weight with the SFA at that time. McNeill won 29 caps for Scotland and it has been well documented that so many of the Lisbon Lions, who shone on the European and domestic stage for Celtic, did not have the same kudos with the national team, something that still rankles with Auld.

"How they never played together for Scotland, I'll never know,” he said. "There were good centre halves back then but as a duo, there was none better. Someone at the SFA should have said, 'McNeill and Clark'.”

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For Clark and Auld, however, yesterday morning’s news was more than just the sad confirmation of the passing of a respected colleague. The relationship between the Lisbon Lions remains close given the unique manner in which they are woven into Celtic’s story but McNeill’s slow and cruel demise from dementia was also a painful journey for those who grew up with him as teenagers, into adulthood and through to senior years.

As football players they delivered the greatest triumph that Celtic will ever know, achievements that will not be surpassed, but as men they brought up families together, socialised together, shared their lives together.

Auld, who might have had a career in standup had it not worked out on a football pitch, was jovial with his anecdotes yesterday but as emotions got the better of him it was difficult not to observe that if McNeill’s death is the passing of a legend at Celtic, it is something more than that to those who walked beside him.

“You knew it was coming but it is still a blow because this is someone you have known for your whole life, really,” said Clark.

“He came to Celtic in 1957 and I came in ’58. There were no cars then, so it was the bus. I got on it first, then Billy, then wee Jinky [Jimmy Johnstone] . . . there is a treble for you! We used to get off at the bus stop down there [on London Road], just in time for training.

“Naturally, over the years your friendship grows. You play alongside him and then you work together in management. It is a sad day for the club. He was a big-time star, wasn’t he really? He had a good presence about him and a story for the press all the time.

“He was a winner, determined to get there all the time. He scored a lot of goals at important times.

“If you went into our dressing room, there were quite a lot of captains, if you understand. But he was the one. And if he had something to say then he would say it. Off the park, he was right good company. All the boys then had stories to tell.

“But he was a humble person, down to earth. He came from Bellshill, I came from Chapelhall: working-class areas. I had been up to see him a few times recently with wee Bertie. It was sad to see but you remember the good times, when he was at his best.”

As a player, as a captain and as a manager, McNeill was assured of his place in Celtic’s history. As an ambassador for the club he was pristine in how he conducted himself but there will only be one enduring image of what he brought to Celtic.

“The photograph of Billy holding the Cup in Lisbon is one of the best photographs ever taken of any captain, I think. It really stands out,” said Clark. “When others have won trophies, they are standing among people. But Billy is standing there on his own. His nickname, Cesar, and he is standing there holding that Cup.”

It is fitting that image is what greets visitors on arrival at Celtic Park.