NEIL Lennon deserves great credit for taking charge of Celtic back in February, galvanising a group of players who were reeling after the sudden departure of a greatly admired and hugely successful manager and leading them to another Scottish title.

Yet, his achievement pales in comparison with that his legendary predecessor Billy McNeill, who was laid to rest amid emotional scenes in Glasgow last week, oversaw some 40 years ago this month.

McNeill steered the club he had played for with such distinction to an unforgettable league victory at the end of his first season in the dugout at Parkhead back in 1979.

But the circumstances he took over in were far more challenging than those which Lennon was faced with when he succeeded Brendan Rodgers and the manner in which the trophy was secured was certainly much more dramatic.

The last Old Firm game of that campaign was, too, an altogether more fraught encounter than the one this weekend, which is now effectively meaningless, is set to be.

The 4-2 win over Rangers in their final game of the season is as celebrated as any in their storied 131 year history and has since been commemorated by the song “Ten Men Won the League”.

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However, when McNeill, as his former captain Andy Lynch recalled yesterday, had replaced Jock Stein the previous summer such a glorious finale looked an unlikely prospect.

“Big Jock had left at the end of the previous season and things were not good,” he said. “There was bad feeling between Jock and Desmond White, the chairman. He wasn’t treated properly when you consider all that he achieved for that club. He should have been given whatever he asked for.

“I was captain of the side. We were shocked when Jock left. Fortunately, Billy came in. He was the only guy who would’ve been able to lift the club again. He did that when he arrived. He was full of enthusiasm. His assistant was John Clark who knew all the players and was terrific as well.

“Big Jock was an older man and had been through so much. He wanted success all the time, that was what drove him on. He was revered. Billy was in the early stages of his managerial career. He had only retired a few years earlier and we got a few more laughs with him. He was an open book, good to work with. That said, you knew how far to go with him, there was a line you didn’t cross.”

Lynch added: “Billy got rid of quite a few of the free transfer players who had come in the previous season. He tried to build again. He kept experienced players and bought well by bringing in Davie Provan and Murdo MacLeod, two relatively young boys. Both of them hit the ground running. Other players matured, the likes of Roy Aitken, Tommy Burns and George McCluskey.

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“It was hard work. We weren’t playing free-flowing football. But we improved throughout the season. We gelled and the belief grew with every week.”

A harsh winter resulted in Celtic not playing any league games in either January or February. They trailed Aberdeen, Dundee United and Rangers, who were bidding to complete a second consecutive domestic treble, in the title race. “With five or six games to go we weren’t quoted for the league,” said Lynch. “But we finished strongly.”

Wins over Hibernian, Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Hearts set up that famous title decider at Parkhead on the evening of Monday, May 21.

“It is indelible in my mind,” said Lynch. “It was a surreal atmosphere. I never experienced anything like it either before or after. I can’t explain it. The fact it was a night game made it special. It was incredible.

“The supporters lifted us and roared us to that victory. The official attendance was given as 52,000, but there must have been 80,000 or 90,000 there. Those were the days of terracings. I have never seen so many people inside the ground.

“We knew we would have to play out of our socks to get the victory. As the game progressed it looked as if everything was going in their favour. Alex MacDonald put them in front. Then John Doyle was sent off at the start of the second-half.

“John lashed out at Alex MacDonald right in front of the referee and was sent off. He was a hot-headed, fiery individual. The minute he did it we all went “that’s the game gone right there!’

“We had it all to do because we knew a draw wasn’t enough. But we equalised through Roy Aitken, who had a terrific game that night.”

McNeill then took a risk by replacing Mike Conroy with Bobby Lennox, who was the grand old age of 35 and nearing the end of his playing days, even though his side had been reduced to 10 men. His bold gamble paid off spectacularly.

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“Bobby was unbelievable,” said Lynch. “He had great fitness levels and was a bubbly character. He still is. He was good for the dressing room. The other guys looked at him and said: ‘This guy is a Lisbon Lion, he’s won the European Cup, he’s a great player’.

“Mike had a fine game for us that night. But Billy knew a draw was no good for us. He put Bobby on. We soon went in front through George McCluskey.”

That, though, wasn’t an end to the drama. “Bobby Russell equalised,” said Lynch. “They went crazy. They were dancing and jumping about. There was only around 15 minutes to go. They were thinking it was over.

“But we went up the park and Colin Jackson scored this crazy own goal. Right at the end, when Rangers were throwing everything at us, we broke away on the counter attack.

“I can remember chasing up the park telling Murdo to slow down. He let fly from outside the box. In some ways it was the wrong thing to do. I was about to give him a telling off. But his shot whistled into the postage stamp. It was a phenomenal goal. Then the final whistle blew.”

Lynch was delighted for his former team mate McNeill. “That was one of the great highlights of his career,” he said. “He has to take a lot of praise for that accomplishment. He managed to gel a team together and win the league in his first season.

“He went on had good success as manager in two spells. He was admired as a player, a person and as a manager. As far as I’m concerned, he is the greatest Celt of all-time.”