UNLIKE many of my colleagues from across Scottish journalism who have written touching tributes to the late, great Billy McNeill over the last few days, I can’t claim to have been fortunate enough to have known the man or even to have met him. But the fact he has been able to touch the lives of those who didn’t know him beyond his achievements as a footballer is perhaps the mark of his greatness.

For many of my generation, too young to have seen him play and still toddling when he was achieving his often understated success as a manager, McNeill represented something almost intangible. The idea of a Scottish team lifting the European Cup is a concept so alien and unrelatable, that if we didn’t have the magnificent pictorial evidence of McNeill hoisting ‘old big ears’ above his head then we might not believe it. And what a picture it is.

But as the memory of a time when a side made up of Scottish players was the cream of the continent fades further, and as the young Scots of today, lamentably, may no longer realistically aspire to lifting the European Cup, the legacy of McNeill may well be that they can aspire to be something more.

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In the friendship between McNeill and his long-term adversary on the field, legendary Rangers captain John Greig, there is a lesson for anyone who follows the Scottish game. And particularly, though not exclusively, for those on both sides of the often-toxic Glasgow divide.

We all love our teams, yes, but the colours you wear and the scarf around your neck are by some distance secondary to the type of person you are. In each other, McNeill and Greig recognised qualities that bridged whatever footballing differences set them apart.

The relationship between these two icons of Celtic and Rangers is a shining example, but it is far from a solitary one, of how a sporting rivalry should be. Who could forget the heart-wrenching sight of Walter Smith and Ally McCoist carrying the coffin of their great friend, Celtic great Tommy Burns, for example?

In McNeill and Greig particularly though, there was a perfect representation of men who gave not an inch on the field but gave fulsome respect off it.

The fact is that so many players and managers from opposite sides of the Old Firm divide have formed bonds through the years, hardly surprising when you consider the similarities of their shared experience within a city that must be suffocating to live in at times for players of either club.

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Celtic and Rangers players socialise together, they very often like each other, and for the vast majority of supporters, that is the case too. That McNeill’s death has been mourned by thousands of Rangers fans shows not only the mark of the man, but that rivalries can be maintained while respect and decency are too.

The atmosphere at Old Firm matches has never been for the faint-hearted, and it is a large part of what makes it so unique. But perhaps those on either side who dabble in the baser aspects – the songs about fenian or orange bastards, the banners about child abuse and so on – would be well served to use this moment when the clubs are united in grief for a spot of introspection. Because while you may revere McNeill and Greig, if you indulge in this sort of crass nonsense, it is a safe bet that both men would be repulsed by you.

There are a couple of comforting thoughts that somewhat soften the blow of McNeill’s passing at the age of 79. One, is that he lived to see the statue erected to him at the bottom of the Celtic Way, when all too often, we only erect the monuments to our legends when they are no longer with us.

The other, is that the example set by him and Greig may see more supporters view the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers as a fierce one, for sure, but one that is also grounded in the mutual respect which exemplified their relationship.

Jock Stein once said of McNeill; “What makes a great player? He’s the one who brings out the best in others. When I am saying that I’m talking about Billy McNeill.” Of all the achievements of his magnificent life, bringing out the best in others might just be his most fitting legacy.


YOU may have your own favourite out of the leaked SFA shortlist of candidates to take over the Scotland job, and perhaps some that bring you out in a cold sweat at the prospect of them getting near the post with a 10-foot caber.

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But I think we can all surely agree that turning to a once successful coach at international level whose best days may sadly be behind him is not a strategy worth repeating.

At 71 and having spent the best part of a decade living off of his past reputation in some of football’s further flung outposts with varying degrees of success – somewhere between bang average and god awful – Sven Goran Eriksson should be nowhere near it.

He has pedigree back in the distant past, sure, but if the Tartan Army viewed one of our own heroes like Alex McLeish as yesterday’s man, the appointment of a coach from around the Neolithic era is hardly likely to get pulses racing and bums on seats at Hampden.

On a related note, it may well be the lowest of low-hanging fruit to have a pop at the SFA over ticket prices, but they just make it so damn easy. Is it any wonder that fans are staying away in their droves if you are looking for £27 plus a £5 booking fee to see our struggling boys up against the might of Cyprus? It’s a wonder they’ve sold any tickets at all.

It's too late now to switch to a more sensible pricing structure to reflect the dearth of interest in the fixture with some hardy souls having already parted with their cash, but maybe the tens of thousands of empty seats on show in June will give the SFA cause for reflection for future campaigns. Though I doubt it.