‘Even to­day, fans talk to

Evening Times - - NEWS - BY RUS­SELL LEAD­BET­TER

A FRIEND of mine, a Celtic fan since she was knee-high to Jimmy John­stone, logged onto her of­fice com­puter yes­ter­day morn­ing. The very first news item that came up was the death of Billy Mc­Neill, her hero.

In front of her col­leagues, she burst into years. She knew Mc­Neill had been suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia for nine years but his death still came as an aw­ful shock.

She’d been lucky to meet Mc­Neill once or twice, and ev­ery de­tail of those en­coun­ters was etched into her mem­ory.

Another Celtic fan I know, who’d met Mc­Neill at, I think, a Celtic func­tion, put it suc­cinctly. “It’s like los­ing family,” he said.

Back in Septem­ber 2004 – and I’m stunned that this was all of 15 years ago – I met Mc­Neill in the foyer of a Glas­gow city cen­tre restau­rant. His au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Hail Ce­sar, was about to be pub­lished.

His 65th birth­day might have been a mat­ter of months away, but I re­mem­ber he still cut an im­pres­sive fig­ure: ram­rod-straight back, im­mac­u­lately dressed, still a for­mi­da­ble pres­ence. “That’s Billy Mc­Neill!” one man whis­pered to his wife as Ce­sar walked past their table. I can still see the man’s fork paused, hov­er­ing just above his plate.

Billy was walk­ing with a limp. He said he had promised him­self that he would even­tu­ally have an op­er­a­tion to deal with it. He was not a stranger to hospi­tals: he had open-heart surgery in 1997, but within a few days he was jog­ging around the hos­pi­tal cor­ri­dors, caus­ing papers to blow off the desks as he passed.

Over the next 40 minutes or so – I wish we could say one of us had or­dered Cae­sar salad for lunch, but that wouldn’t be truth­ful – the ex-Celtic cap­tain and man­ager spoke of many things.

That nick­name, for ex­am­ple – “I’ve read all sorts of rub­bish about Julius Cae­sar, about my be­ing an im­pe­ri­ous sort of player. It came from 1960 when a gang of us went to see the Ocean’s Eleven film. One of its stars was Ce­sar Romero. As I was the only one with a car, one of the guys de­cided I suited the Romero role, and that’s how the name stuck.”

I asked him about play­ers’ wages – the top English play­ers back then seemed to re­ceive colos­sal amounts of money. (I’ve of­ten won­dered how he would view the truly as­ton­ish­ing sums that the top play­ers earn now).

“You of­ten see crit­i­cism of these guys’ salaries, but there are so many pro­fes­sions nowa­days in which peo­ple are in­de­cently paid, and I hon­estly don’t think foot­ballers are bad in com­par­i­son,” he said. “Some peo­ple are paid a mil­lion pounds to read the news on TV.

“Foot­ballers are dif­fer­ent. They are stars in their own right, and give peo­ple enor­mous en­ter­tain­ment. Foot­ball has be­come a more prom­i­nent part of so­ci­ety as well.

“Maybe the pay pen­du­lum has swung too far in one di­rec­tion, but it al­ways takes time be­fore the whole thing is cor­rected.

“I do think, how­ever, that we were un­fairly treated in our day. We had no free­dom of movement, no right to say ‘I want away’. We saw very little of the in­come that the club raked in.”

He praised Jock Stein, Celtic’s man­ager: “Big Jock was ahead of his time in so many ways. He rev­o­lu­tionised Celtic, and maybe Scot­tish foot­ball as well. If it hadn’t been for him, the Celtic of to­day would not ex­ist.”

His own ca­reer high­light, of course, oc­curred on May 25, 1967. Lis­bon’s Es­ta­dio Na­cional: the Euro­pean Cup fi­nal. Celtic 2, In­ter Mi­lan 1. The day when Celtic be­came im­mor­tal. “If I could turn back the clock, it would be to have all the Li­ons col­lect the cup that night, not just me,” he said now.

“When the fans in­vaded the pitch to cel­e­brate, the team was shep­herded into the dress­ing room. That left just me and as­sis­tant man­ager Sean Fal­lon to be pre­sented with the cup, to my dis­may. “Win­ning it wasn’t a per­sonal thing. It was a col­lec­tive thing. That vic­tory was the biggest thing I’ve ever achieved, but it was only much later be­fore we ap­pre­ci­ated just how big it was. Even to­day, fans talk to you about it, and you re­alise that Lis­bon has passed into folk­lore. “It’s ter­rific,” he added, “that peo­ple still point you out and tell their kids ‘See that man there ...?’ I don’t know how of­ten a wee boy has looked at me and won­dered who this old man was. But then their par­ents men­tion the Euro­pean Cup, and you be­come a Lis­bon Lion all over again.”

As he spoke, a copy of the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy lay between us. Now and then my gaze fell on the fa­mil­iar im­age on the front – the ath­letic fig­ure of Mc­Neill, in his prime of life: his arms raised aloft, his hands clutch­ing the hard­earned, thor­oughly de­served, Euro­pean Cup. I sneaked a glance at his hands, now qui­etly busy with a knife and fork, and thought of how those hands held so much sil­ver­ware in their time.

At Celtic alone there were nine Scot­tish League cham­pi­onships, seven Scot­tish Cups, and six Scot­tish League Cups.

I also thought back to the times when I had seen Mc­Neill and his vin­tage Celtic side take on my own team at home at their trim little ground, back dur­ing my school years, and to the sense of pre-match dread that set­tled over me when­ever Celtic (or Rangers, for that mat­ter) came to town. Play­ers like Mc­Neill sym­bol­ised an in­domitable spirit, a clever and ag­gres­sive style of play. It was very dif­fi­cult to not ad­mire them, even when they had just run your own team off the park.

In the interview we spoke about his later ven­tures into man­age­ment – Clyde, Aberdeen, Celtic, Manch­ester City, As­ton Villa, Celtic again, and a very brief mo­ment as care­taker at Hibs. Not ev­ery spell ended as hap­pily as he would have wished, but in Scot­land at least there were lots of fur­ther hon­ours, es­pe­cially at Celtic, and es­pe­cially the epic suc­cesses of the club’s cen­te­nary year in 1988.

De­spite all the adu­la­tion and the tri­umphs he achieved as a player, he said he had been care­ful never to take too much of it home.

“At home I’ve never been ‘Billy Mc­Neill the foot­baller’. I al­ways aimed to be just ‘Billy Mc­Neill, a fa­ther to my kids’. And to­day I’m just a grand­fa­ther to my grandchild­ren, not a legend.”

I’d been slightly ap­pre­hen­sive, be­fore­hand, about meet­ing Ce­sar. This, after all, was a man who had seen it all and done it all, who had in his time been adored un­con­di­tion­ally by thou­sands upon thou­sands of Celtic fans, and who had a life­time’s ex­pe­ri­ence of deal­ing with the me­dia.

It was also clear that he car­ried with him a sort of nat­u­ral authority. No won­der so many play­ers looked up to him – and to him.

In the event, I needn’t have wor­ried. He couldn’t have been friend­lier, more gen­uine.

The con­ver­sa­tion went well but, all too soon, it was over. And as we pre­pared to leave, the diner who’d ex­claimed “It’s Billy Mc­Neill!” was still casting an awed glance in his di­rec­tion.

‘‘ If I could turn back the clock, it would be to have all the Li­ons col­lect the cup that night, not just me

Cap­tain Billy Mc­Neill leads Celtic out for the Euro­pean Cup Fi­nal in Lis­bon in 1967

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