TO Andy Walker, Billy McNeill was always more than just a football manager. A friend of the family before the pair ever teamed up at Celtic through his father Frank, who was McNeill’s accountant, Walker repaid McNeill for his faith in his abilities with 32 goals in all competitions as the first man from these islands to hold the European Cup aloft added to his legend by steering the club to a memorable double in its centenary year of 1988.

The bond between the two men stretched far beyond that, though. It is no surprise that Walker, along with centenary year team-mates like Frank McAvennie, Joe Miller and Pat Bonner, should be regular visitor to his old gaffer’s bedside until the very end.

“I’ve got all these memories of Billy as my manager but first and foremost he was a family friend,” recalls Walker, now a pundit for SkySports. “My dad was his chartered accountant so when I was a young boy he was around the house once or twice, as was Kenny Dalglish, because my dad did work for him and their family had some pubs and stuff. I remember getting my picture taken with him.

“Even when I was at Motherwell because my he was giving me advice,” Walked added. “My dad went down to see him – he was acting for him when he was manager of Aston Villa and Manchester City. I was still making my way in the game - I had had my third season at Motherwell, I was moving on and there was a bit of interest. Billy was on the phone to my dad but he asked to speak to me, asked me how it was going at Motherwell and what I was thinking about for next season.

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“I told him I thought Celtic were interested and one or two English clubs were too,” he added. “I didn’t have an agent, but Billy said ‘look whenever you are moving, give me a call’. That was quite funny, because Davie Hay was manager of Celtic at the time and Billy wasn’t doing anything.

“Then Davie got the sack and Billy took over. He pretty much just took over the scouting reports that Celtic had about me and he signed me. And that went on to be the most enjoyable and successful period of my career and something I will never forget.”

Celtic cantered to the league title by all of 14 points back in 1988, capturing the crown with a 3-0 home win against Dundee 31 years ago yesterday where the throng was officially calculated at 61,927 but was probably far more than that. But as Walker soon found out, when McNeill was involved, football was only part of the bargain.

“He was much more than the manager of the club,” said Walker. “I have got this great memory of these unwelcome, unexpected monthly meetings. Billy would come into the dressing room with an air of authority and with this big yellow folder, a couple of inches thick, under his arm.

“It was full of letters that people had written to him,” he added. “They were all addressed to him personally. ‘To Billy’. He was encouraging us to go out and meet fans. Whether it was looking for a player to attend a function, or individuals who were in hospital or laid low at home, we had to just go and be a part of it.

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“You had guys there like Tommy Burns, Roy Aitken, Pat Bonner and Paul McStay and it must just have been part of their make-up. They would always volunteer and gradually everyone else started to follow their lead. But Billy was so insistent that this was part of your job, part of playing for Celtic, what representing the club was all about, that eventually more and more it became the norm. People were saying ‘aye, I’ll do that, and eventually the meetings were done in about 10 minutes. Billy had such a relationship with the supporters. I have never seen or heard of that since.”

This was Graeme Souness’ first season in the Scottish game but Celtic had other ideas. They won the first Old Firm match 1-0 at Celtic Park in August, and maintained their momentum after that infamous 2-2 draw at Ibrox in October which saw four sent off. More drama ensued in the Scottish Cup, where they came from behind in the semi-final and final, against Hearts and Dundee United, respectively.

“It was the best time of my career,” said Walker. “We were all privileged to be part of that centenary year, we had the best leader you could imagine. Billy came in after that first Old Firm game and said we had played some of the best football he had ever seen in an Old Firm game. I remember thinking ‘really?’ When you think of some of the great Celtic teams that had gone before, I have no doubt he was embellishing it, laying it on a bit thick, but he still made you feel 10 foot tall and you just couldn’t wait for the next game. He loved all that and he always wanted to win those games and give the supporters a special feeling.

“We had a chance to win the league at Tynceastle but we got beaten 2-1, then we did it against Dundee instead. I don’t think I have ever seen Celtic Park busier. They were taking fans from one end of the ground to the other. Frank McAvennie had an absolute stinker in that semi-final but he certainly made up for it in the final. To do the double in that fashion was incredible.”

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Even folk heroes and legends at clubs can found themselves being shown the door. While there was further glory for both McNeill and Walker with a 1-0 Scottish Cup win in 1989, this wasn’t the footballing juggernaut which Celtic have since become in the post-Fergus McCann era. With Rangers re-claiming domestic dominance, he was unceremoniously sacked when the club decided that finishes of third, fifth and third wasn’t good enough.

“I think he was a victim of the way the club was being run at that point,” said Walker. “I remember the chat he had with Tommy Craig after the cup final and the two players he wanted to sign were Paul Gascoigne and Peter Beardsley [then of Newcastle United and Bolton Wanderers respectively]. We had a decent side then, you can only imagine what a young Gascoigne and Beardsley would have done for us at that time. This was a period where there was no European football in England but Celtic were very much at that time ‘just go with what you have got’. I think after they did the double it was just Ian Andrews, the goalkeeper, who came in. Eventually guys like Mike Galloway would came in but there was no real serious investment in players.”

Walker had not long left the club by the time McNeill was unceremoniously sacked. “I remember my old man telling me about it,” said Walker. “Billy said ‘they’ve asked me to resign, Frank’. And my dad said to him ‘resign from nothing, Billy, I’ll be right over’.

“At that time Celtic were very unprofessional in some of their business dealings, sometimes they were second rate. They were trying to fob one of our favourite sons off and eventually he left – with his dignity intact. He should have been back at the club a lot earlier than he was, as club ambassador [in 2009]. There were a lot of people at the club who didn’t want that to happen, but that was a bit strange, but there you go.”

Like any football dressing room, there were disagreements along the way but if anyone knew how to disarm an incendiary situation it was big Billy. “In fairness to Billy, he never let anything fester, just like he never held anything against Celtic,” said Walker. “This was how it was in his relationship with players. I had a fall out with him, but there were a million players who would fall out with him on a Saturday. One of his great strengths was that he would always come after you first thing on a Monday morning, put his arms round you and say ‘what were we arguing about at the weekend?’

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“‘I know you only want to be the best striker you can be for this club, I want what is best for the club too. Let’s put that behind us and move on’. Eventually he got back in at Celtic and you couldn’t ask for a better ambassador for the club, someone who had played the amount of games that he had played and captained the greatest ever team they ever had, led the greatest ever team they had ever had.”

The respect was mutual – even across the historic battle lines of Scottish football. “He had very good relationships with Clyde and Aberdeen - where he managed - and I remember being at Hibs where Jim Duffy brought him on as some sort of mentor for a short time. When Jim got the sack he was in charge of Hibs for one game up at Pittodrie, we got beaten 3-0 but there was just a level of professionalism and expertise.

“Billy absolutely loved to beat Rangers but he had the utmost respect for them as opponents. Because he always felt the Rangers players were under the same pressures as him. And he hated the sectarianism, the bigotry that always seems to surface when these two come together. That is why it is such a great image of him and John Greig walking out together to remember those that died in the Ibrox disaster. They were two of the great captains of their day.”

Jock Stein is untouchable in the pantheon of Celtic managers, while the likes of Martin O’Neill, Brendan Rodgers and Neil Lennon have carved out a special place too. But when it comes to being an icon of this club, McNeill the man takes some beating.

“In terms of his longevity and the iconic images you will never get anyone better than Billy to represent Celtic,” says Walker. “The amount of games he played for Celtic, and the level of success he had as a player and a manager, some of the club’s most iconic times, he was a footballing giant.

“Absolutely we had a friendship, he was a very warm individual,” added Walker. “He was a man with a great drive to win games and sometimes he would upset you but I don’t think you would find anyone who didn’t appreciate that he was doing the right thing for the club.

“We were long past being manager and guys in the team by then, but whenever you met him there was a warm handshake, a warm hug, and good chat, right up to the very end. I’ve been up to see him a few times with Frank McAvennie, Joe Miller, and Pat Bonner, and we were just so happy to be going to see him and giving him and his wife Liz our support. I’m thinking of her because she was very much part of it as well.”