Death of Celtic great Billy McNeil, aged 79

Frank Meehan with Billy McNeil at Celtic Park pic by Bill Heaney

Retired United States Ambassador Frank Meehan with Celtic FC Ambassador, Billy McNeil, who died this week. Picture by Bill Heaney

By Bill Heaney

Celtic Football Club has announced that their legendary former club captain Billy McNeill – the first Briton to lift the European Cup – has died aged 79.

McNeill led Celtic when they beat Inter Milan 2-1 in 1967 and captained the club to nine successive titles, seven Scottish Cups and six League Cups.

In two spells as Celtic boss, he won four titles and four cups. He managed Clyde, Aberdeen, Manchester City and Aston Villa too.

McNeill had been suffering from dementia since 2010.

Celtic say he died on Monday night “surrounded by his family and loved ones”.

A statement from the McNeil family said he “fought bravely to the end, showing the strength and fortitude he always has done throughout his life”.

It added: “We would also like to note our love and appreciation to our mother, Liz, for the care, devotion and love she gave to our father throughout his illness. No one could have done any more.

“Whilst this is a very sad time for all the family and we know our privacy will be respected, our father always made time for the supporters so please tell his stories, sing his songs and help us celebrate his life.”

Big goals in big games – McNeill the player

Born in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, McNeill joined Celtic from junior side Blantyre Victoria and made his debut on 23 August 1958.

More than 800 appearances later, the Scottish Cup final win against Airdrie on 3 May 1975 was the imposing centre-back’s farewell game.

 Billy McNeil with some fans from Dumbarton. Recognise any of them?

Among his many career highs was scoring the winner in the 1965 Scottish Cup final, ending an eight-year trophy drought for Celtic. He also found the net in the 1969 and 1972 finals.

The European Cup final of 1967 was the pinnacle, coming in the same season Celtic won a domestic treble, but he was on the losing side three years later when Feyenoord beat Celtic in Milan after extra-time.

He was capped 29 times for Scotland. McNeill, the manager, briefly took charge of Clyde and Aberdeen before returning to Celtic to succeed Jock Stein – under whom he enjoyed his many successes – in 1978.

McNeill, after a spell in business as a partner with colleagues in the Lomond Castle Hotel at Arden,  left for City in 1983, securing promotion to the English top flight in his second year, before joining Aston Villa in September 1986, with both sides ending up relegated that season.

His second spell as Celtic boss began impressively as he delivered a league and Scottish Cup double in the club’s centenary season, 1987-88.

However, a four-year stint would yield just one more trophy, the 1989 Scottish Cup.

Seven years after leaving the dugout at Celtic, his last taste of management came at Hibernian in 1998, where he stood in for one game during a brief stint as director of football at Easter Road.

McNeill was always polite, always approachable and often came to Dumbarton to encourage local schools teams, present trophies and give talks on the game.

McNeill, awarded the MBE in 1974, is in the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame and the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.

He was voted Celtic’s greatest captain in a 2002 fans’ poll and showed his interest in politics the following year stood as a candidate for the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party in the Scottish Parliament election.

Appointed a Celtic ambassador

McNeill was given a Celtic ambassador role in 2009 and a statue of him lifting the European Cup was erected at Celtic Park in 2015.

He was delighted to be introduced to a “real ambassador,” former US ambassador Frank Meehan, a former pupil of St Patrick’s High School, Dumbarton, in the boardroom at Celtic Park.

Mr Meehan, who is now 95, was a one of the principal characters on whom the recent Oscar nominated film Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks, was based.

“Celtic has been in my blood and a part of my life for so many years and to be recognised in this way, by the club I love, is truly humbling,” McNeill said at the time.

In May 2017, McNeill was able to attend an event at Glasgow City Chambers, to mark the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s triumph over Inter Milan in Lisbon.

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