There’s only one King Billy
Bobby Evans knew a player when he saw one and his first impressions of the lanky teenager playing for Our Lady’s High School were positive. He soon had the Celtic scouting system knocking on the door of young William McNeil. The youngster needed no second invitation and signed for Celtic in August 1957, a few weeks before the League Cup final of that year which as every Celt will tell you ended in a 7-1 rout of ancient rivals Rangers. Few would have guessed that the startling and comprehensive victory young McNeil witnessed would be rewarded with the last major trophy Celtic would win for 8 long and bitter years. McNeil himself would be amazed if you had said to him on that bright October day in 1957 that not until he was Captain of the side would Celtic taste cup final victory again.
His formative years at Celtic saw the reserve team run by a certain Jock Stein develop some excellent young players who had the potential to do well in the game. However the late 1950s and early 1960s were times of false dawns, bitter defeats and exasperation for the Celtic support. Interference in team matters by Chairman Bob Kelly saw some ludicrous decisions made. The young Celtic side which did so well in the Cup Final of 1963 to hold a very strong Rangers side to a 1-1 draw saw the inspirational Jimmy Johnstone dropped for the replay on Kelly’s orders. Celtic lost 3-0 and thousands of angry Celtic fans had departed long before the end of the game as Rangers toyed with their side. On another occasion as the team bus headed for a game at Airdrie, Kelly spotted a reserve goalkeeper heading towards the ground with his Celtic scarf on. He ordered the bus to stop and pick the young man up. He then told McGrory, just an hour before kick-off, to put him in the team. The youngster played and Celtic lost 0-2.
By 1964-65 Season McNeil had reached a critical point in his career. Stein had departed to great success at Dunfermline and Hibs and Celtic were languishing well behind Hearts, Kilmarnock and Rangers in the league. Spurs were interested in signing him and the young internationalist was sorely tempted. Not only were Celtic grossly under-achieving, but pay rates remained low for such a big club. Then just a few days after his 25th birthday in March 1965 came news which electrified the club. Jock Stein was returning and those who knew the big man realised that he would never accept the kind of interference in team matters the mild mannered McGrory had accepted. McNeil sensed that things were going to be very different at Celtic Park now that a Manager with up to date ideas and a personality which would dominate Celtic and indeed Scottish football.
Stein took stock of his new team and the situation it was in in early 1965 and saw that the title was already gone. McGrory had left the Hoops in the Cup Semi-final and that seemed the best chance of silverware for the new Manager and his team. The semi-final with Motherwell on 27 March was a tense affair and the Celtic fans in the 52,000 crowd felt they were close to going out as a certain Joe McBride hit 2 goals for Motherwell but an under par Celtic fought back twice and the game ended 2-2. In the replay, watched by almost 60,000, Celtic played much better and swept Motherwell aside by 3-0. The final was now a reality and only Dunfermline stood between Celtic and their first trophy in 8 long years.
Billy McNeil looked every inch a leader and a Captain as he led Celtic onto the pitch for the 1965 cup final against Dunfermline in front of 108,000 fans. The Fifers had given Celtic a lot of trouble in that era and the pundits were split on who would win. Celtic went behind twice in the match and as they trooped off 1-2 down it was noted that no team had come from behind twice to win the cup. The half time team talk from Stein was calm and assured, ‘Keep plugging away and the rewards will come.’ In the second half Auld scored to make it 2-2 as the huge Celtic support reached a near hysterical state. Could they do it? Could they finally reward their long suffering fans with a trophy? With Murdoch, moved to midfield by Stein, and Auld dominating the midfield, Celtic looked the stronger team as the minutes ticked past. On 81 minutes Celtic won a corner and McNeil trotted forward. There was a sense of anticipation as the ball was arced into the box. Bobby Lennox heard his skipper roar ‘Leave it!’ as McNeil rose to meet the ball. The success starved Celtic fans held their breath as the skipper thundered his header goal-wards. It smashed into the back of the net as Hampden let out one of those huge roars which gave the old stadium such a famous name. The Celtic supporters went wild as years of frustration and anger melted away. At long last they had a trophy to celebrate and Celtic was set for an exciting new era.
Much has been written about the decade of glory which followed Celtic’s 3-2 victory in the Scottish Cup Final of 1965. Stein himself said, "It wouldn't have gone as well for Celtic had they not have won this game." The victory energised the club and gave the players the belief that they could be winners. With Stein organising and motivating off the park and McNeil barking out the orders on it, Celtic were moulded into a formidable team. Celtic won the title the following season and by 1966-67 had become a ruthless goal machine which swept every team in Scotland aside. In Europe they marched towards their destiny in Lisbon and on a hot day in May 1967 reached the club’s zenith. McNeil led Celtic through a glorious era and saw the club, previously so starved of success, gorge themselves on silverware. 9 league titles were won in succession, 7 Scottish Cups and 5 League cups were added to Celtic’s list of achievements. In Europe they were a force to be reckoned with and few of the giants of European football fancied getting Celtic in the draw.
In memory’s view McNeil soars above attackers to defend Celtic’s goal or imperiously heads the ball into the opposition net. He led by example and inspired those around him to raise and sustain the level of performance required at Celtic in those days. His goals in cup finals, Old Firm games and even in the World Club Championship were always welcome but his role in that great team was always to lead and to instil confidence in his team mates. His retrial in 1975 came at the end of another victorious cup final and some argue that it was a year or two too soon. He had played over 790 competitive games for Celtic and led them through the most successful era in the club’s history. It was an astonishing turnaround for the young lad who thought of joining Spurs in 1965 as Celtic seemed to be going nowhere.
The most iconic image of Billy McNeil remains the picture of the young captain astride the podium in Lisbon with the European Cup glinting in the bright sunlight. Here was his professional peak but here too was the peak of Celtic football club’s incredible rise from the slums of Victorian Glasgow to being crowned the finest team in Europe. As a Celtic Captain and indeed supporter, McNeil knew the historical significance of what Stein and the Lions had achieved, He said of the final whistle going at the end of that game with Inter in 1967…
'That's what hit us. We had done something that had never been done before and it was terrific.'
Terrific does not begin to describe the achievements of Celtic during the Stein era nor their play on that hot day in Portugal. They destroyed Inter Milan and their defensive tactics for a generation. Stein knew well the vital role his skipper had played in his side and said of him…
“What makes a great player? It’s a question I’m often asked and my answer is always the same. He is the one who brings out the best in others, and when I am saying that I am talking about Billy McNeill. It is this quality of bringing the units of the team together, and inspiring them to play for each other and for the club, which has raised our captain above all others in the past.”
The word ‘Legend’ is banded about much in sport but if one man deserves that accolade then it is surely Billy McNeil. The service he gave Celtic as player, Manager and ambassador for the club has been immense. Ask any Celtic fan to name his all-time Celtic 11 and it’s a fair bet Billy McNeil will be on the team. They used to chant back in the less PC days of the 60s and 70s ‘There’s only one King Billy and that’s McNeil.’ In the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Celtic fans down the years that remains true.
For the leadership, skill and sheer will to win we salute you Billy. In the annals of Celtic Football Club, your name has an honoured and deserved place. You epitomise so much of what we aspire to for our club.
God Bless and thank you!