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McNeill, Billy (1958-75)
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PersonalFullname: William McNeill
aka: Billy McNeill
Nicknames: Cesar, King Billy, The Big Man
Born: 2 March 1940
Birthplace: Bellshill, North Lanarkshire
Signed (as player): 20 August 1957 (from Our Lady's High)
Left (as player): 3 May 1975 (retired)
Positon: Centre half, Defender
First game: Clyde home 2-0 League Cup 23 August 1958
Last game: Airdrie Hampden 3-1 Scottish cup final 3 May 1975
First goal: Ayr United away 3-1 league 4 March 1961
Last goal: Airdrie home 6-0 league 16 November 1974
International Caps: 29 Caps
International Goals: 3
Manager: 1978-1983, 1987-1991
First game as manager in first spell: Clyde home 2-1 Anglo Scottish cup 3 August 1978
Last game as manager in first spell: Rangers away 4-2 league 14 May 1983
First game as manager in second spell: Morton away 4-0 league 8 August 1987
Last game as manager in second spell: Saint Johnstone away 3-2 11 May 1991
| "If ever a man was made for a specific club, it was Billy McNeill and Glasgow Celtic.... His heart was always at Parkhead."|
Peter Swales (Chairman of Man City 1989)
Playing CareerAn undoubted Celtic great, Billy McNeill, 'Cesar', was the captain of the Lisbon Lions and the lynchpin in the team Stein led to much success.
McNeill was born on 2 March 1940 in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, of part Irish and part Lithuanian descent.
He was signed by Celtic from nearby junior team, Blantyre Victoria, in 1957 as a defender. As captain he won nine Scottish League Championships, seven Scottish Cups, and six Scottish League Cups, as well as the European Cup final. He had the honour of being the first British player to lift the European Cup.
He retired as a player in 1975 after over 800 appearances for Celtic. During his career, he won 29 caps for Scotland.
Whenever someone discusses our 9-in-a-row, the focus is always on Jock Stein and what he did. Sometimes it can just overshadow the part that the players played in this, and in some ways that is very true of Billy McNeill ("Cesar"), possibly Celtic's greatest elder statesman.
Billy McNeill is pivotal in the history of Celtic and even more so in the golden era under Jock Stein. Raised in Bellshill (Lanarkshire), in his youth he used to go watch Motherwell (the nearest big club) and used to play for Our Lady's High School football side. After signing for Celtic (having being spotted by Bobby Evans) he cemented his place in the Celtic defence. However, all was not well and before the arrival of Jock Stein at Celtic, things at Parkhead weren't so good, with poor coaching and management difficulties that made him close to jacking it all in and was attracting interest from Spurs. Strange how things could have turned out or could have been if he had decided to go, but thankfully the arrival of Stein changed things for him to stay and all for the better.
It's said that Stein's appointment as manager was important to Billy McNeill yet the truth is that Billy's presence at Parkhead was just as important for Stein. Celtic's rise to the top began step by step and it was Billy who scored the pivotal winning goal in the 1965 Scottish Cup final against the match final favourites Dunfermline (!) to give us our first senior trophy since 1957! A late charge with eight minutes to go saw Celtic win a corner. Charlie Gallagher swung in a perfect inswinger into the box which McNeill connected to and headed the ball into the back of the net! Billy was only in the box as he was pushed by Jock Stein to do so, previously defenders were told not to do so. The importance of the game was acknowledged by Stein years later and it was through a combination of Stein's tactics and Celtic's determination that we won the trophy and set us up for the years to come. Billy McNeill's place had now been marked in Celtic's annals, and it is fair to say that he had helped to kickstart us into the Golden Era (or headed us in!).
From here on in, Billy's ability as a player was now at the forefront of Celtic's play. A strong determined footballer, he commanded respect not only from his fellow players but from opposition players as well. Strong in the tackle and in the air, he was a commanding player but it was his organisational skills and communicational abilities on the park that gave him an edge over others. He had an aura and despite his strong will, he was actually a pleasant and decent person at all times and few if any have ever had anything to say bad about him. There was no high & mighty attitude with Billy, and all were treated fairly.
One important point is that some players can be made better with the players round them, and in Billy's case this was where John Clark came into play. Generally overlooked by many when reviewing Celtic's history, it is true to say that Billy McNeill was twice the player with John Clark beside him but this is not to take anything away from either at all. When players combine well together (as Larsson and Sutton did so well in the 90s), it's almost as if you have an extra man on the pitch.
The league title in 1965-66 increased Billy's stature at the club, but the first signs of what could be achieved were sown in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1965-66 where Celtic bowed out in the semi-finals. It was a disappointment but a pre-cursor to the glorious 1966-67 season where Billy McNeill was the lynchpin to our success. The role of honour can never be understated, the domestic treble (league, Scottish Cup and League Cup) with the European Cup is as much a testament to his abilities as Captain of the side as it was to Jock Stein's managerial ability.
The European Cup final of 1967 was the pinnacle of his career. In his own words: “The biggest thing I had to do as captain was in illustrating to the team that we had nothing to fear. I had to swap pennants with their captain, Picchi before the kick-off. We exchanged words but I didn’t have any Italian and I don’t think he had any English, but you always manage to get through.” A stout Celtic defence sadly conceded an early goal, but the team was more than ably captained by McNeill, and Celtic fought back to defeat the Catenaccio of Inter Milan. His crowning glory was his sole march to lift the trophy after the final whistle, which the rest of the team themselves didn't see (stuck in the dressing room). He lifted the trophy above his head and immortalised his image and proclaim us champions of Europe. He was more "Caesar" than "Cesar [Romero]" at this moment, a befitting moment for him as much as a great man as a player of his stature. Still makes us all proud when we see that picture.
The following World Club Championships, where we were kicked and assaulted to defeat by Racing Club, was a low point for Celtic, but an interview with a Racing player later depicted a side to Billy McNeill's character that showed him to be a giant against above all other men. The player saw Billy McNeill approach at the final whistle and expected an assault after what had transpired in the previous 90 mins. Instead, Billy McNeill graciously and humbly held out his hand and they shook hands followed by an exchanging of jerseys. The player was so taken by the gesture in the strained circumstances that he grasped McNeill's jersey tight and ran back to the dressing rooms so as to ensure no one could take it from him. He stated that after all that happened he was humbled by Billy McNeill and hoped they might play again in the World Cup 1970 (which Scotland sadly didn't make). It was the mark of the man that he was able to still be a gentleman even in the face of so much tension and havoc. (See match page.)
Coming years saw us continue to dominate domestically under Jock Stein's auspice, with Billy McNeill at the helm on the field and we were coasting league victories and titles. Rangers were unable to match Billy McNeill for presence or stature, and we were comfortable in the knowledge that he was always our man.
Even in European games, Billy McNeill continued to excel with the games against Leeds in the European Cup semi-finals of 1970 another high mark. The opposition employed long ball tactics were completely undone as the Celtic defence under Billy McNeill stood tall and won everything thrown at them. The final was another matter and disappointingly we lost. Sadly, Billy McNeill was party at the centre of the losing goal, and in his own words the club lost a lot of self-belief after this defeat.
As a captain Billy was the main man and a total inspiration to those around him on the pitch and on the terracing. For a centre half to score in three Scottish cup finals is a magnificent achievement (1965, 1969 and 1972) and his leadership was inspirational during the glory years. It's no coincidence that when Celtic lost 4-1 to Partick Thistle in the 1971 LCF that Billy's presence in defence was badly missed. The fans admired him tremendously and Billy McNeill was greatly loved by the Celtic support.
Nevertheless, he was forgiven as after all he'd done for us on the pitch, moments like as happened in the 1970 final do happen all the greats (as here). Further forays in the European Cup to semi-finals in 1972 and 1974 showed we were a strong force and Billy McNeill was always there to push us further.
An additional point must be added to how Billy also helped the careers of many around them. The "Quality Street" gang of players in the early 1970's were always looking up to him and loved him, and he played a strong part in their development. If only the club was managed better at the board level then Billy McNeill could have played with them for longer, but the Quality Street players departed one by one as financial matters came to a head.
In 1975, Billy McNeill played his last game for the club. It was the end of an era for the man we'd all loved. At the final whistle of his last game (Scottish Cup Final victory v Airdrie), he was carried aloft by all his fellow players as the fans chanted his name. Thankfully this was not to be Billy's last involvement with the club, and he has been in love with Celtic as much as any fan has ever been.
Many like to talk about Jinky or Stein but Billy McNeill is a name that should never be sidelined. A wonderful player and person, and never one whom Celtic will ever be able to replace man for man.
Major Honours as a PlayerEuropean Cup
Manager 1978 - 1983Billy McNeill had the daunting task to take over from the legendary Jock Stein. How exactly was Billy to do? Having worked from the bottom up with Clyde & then Aberdeen (for one season taking over from Ally MacLeod who went to Argentina to manage the hapless Scotland squad), he had gained the rudiments that help set the best managers up in their careers. For Jock Stein, the change was a difficult move; a poignant picture, from the time of transfer of power over to Billy, depicts a handshake between Billy and the then chairman being coldly looked down upon by Jock Stein. It was a sad day, and even now many years after than picture was taken, we can still feel the hurt and pain.
In any case, Billy McNeill was now in charge and the environment had moved on from his heyday as a player. Rangers were heavily resorting back to their old physical dogmatic style of play and it had paid dividends in a treble in 1978. Celtic, on the other hand, had sunk quickly and it was up to Billy McNeil to take on the reins and lead us back to the top. Taking his knowledge and experience of working under Jock Stein, the club was hoping to repeat the successes of years gone by.
His first year was eventful, and a good squad of players worked their way up the ladder taking on Rangers. A closely fought season saw the whole championship boil down to the last game of the season (for Celtic), where "Ten men won the league". An incredible game saw Celtic playing Rangers with a man down, yet we came from behind to win the game and seal the league at the death. Sheer brilliance, and a moment up there with the best experienced domestically under Jock Stein's rein.
The highlight of Billy McNeill's first foray as Celtic manager was to come in 1980. In the European Cup, a galvanised Celtic team pushed above their weight and reached the quarter-finals to set up a mouth-watering game against Spanish giants Real Madrid. At home, the team put in a workman-like performance and outplayed the lauded opposition (much fancied to easily defeat us) and we won by two goals to nil. For Billy McNeill, more than at any point he could now come out from under Jock Stein's shadow, too often an unfair burden, and with this result Billy McNeill could be heralded in his own right. Magnificent. The return leg was never going to be easy, and a pumped-up Real Madrid easily swatted us aside 3-0 at the Bernabeu. Hopes were bitterly dashed but this was our best performance in Europe since 1974, and was in large part due to Billy McNeil who deserved full credit.
Celtic is all about players, and in Charlie Nicholas, Billy McNeill had a gem in the same way that Jock had Jinky. A precocious player Charlie Nicholas set the heather on fire in his first seasons and was lauded with praise from all quarters. Nurturing talent like Charlie Nicholas was no easy task but Billy had seen it going both right (Jinky) and awry (George Connelly), so if anything Billy had experience on how to handle Charlie (no easy task). Billy helped to bring up other great players in his time as manager, but few stand out as much as Charlie Nicholas.
It was like a new era beginning in Scottish football, however, as much as that was partially true, a new era was dawning but not for Celtic (or Rangers) but for the "New Firm" (Dundee Utd & Aberdeen). In the early 80's Aberdeen and then Dundee Utd began to battle against the old Glasgow duopoly of the Scottish game. A welcome change for the Scottish league but with the the legendary Alex Ferguson at the helm at Aberdeen. Aberdeen won the league in 1979/80 but Celtic pinched the league back in the next two seasons under Billy McNeill in hard close fought tussles. The squad was well managed and respected, and Billy McNeill was moulding the players together.
One of the more celebrated moments in Billy's rein was off the field. Back in 1980, en route to Hungary for a European tie, Billy McNeill, after a heated discussion over an Old Firm match decision with Gerry McNee (an extreme bawbag & one-time David Murray sycophant), McNeill invited McNee to carry on the discussion outside. On accepting the invitation, Billy McNeill famously lamped Gerry McNee once they got outside, although sadly it didn't knock any sense into his head as McNee's future journalistic contributions were to show. For the incidents, Billy McNeill was fined £500 for the punch and then given a public rebuke. Most fans regarded it (and still do) as a bargain. There was an ironic, and humorous, postscript when the press party eventually arrived at their Hungarian outpost, about four hours drive from Budapest. McNeill invited the travelling hacks to take penalties against him after training, and the only one to score was the bold Gerry. Stories that he achieved this feat while clutching his eye at the same time have never been confirmed.
In truth, the real challenge was off-the-field against our own board! Mismanagement had come back to haunt the club, the board directors having taken little advantage of Celtic's earlier dominance to build the facilities deserved (for the players as well as the fans), and for Billy there was to be little financial assistance to help re-build the club back up. After all the previous success there was little in the kitty, and Billy spent a disproportionate amount of time simply fighting with the board. The straw that broke the camel's back was the transfer of Charlie Nicholas to Arsenal, which became a very public fall-out between the Chairman (Desmond White) & Billy McNeill. Losing a talent such as Charlie Nicholas was a real body blow, and at such a young age he still had much development to go through. Celtic had been a selling club for too long despite our size and pedigree, but to lose even our youth players, what then was the manager's team to work with? In the past, Dalglish and others had at least left after a number of years at the club.
At the end of season 1982/83, Billy McNeill had had enough of the board, and openly said it. He left the club to move to Man City as manager, a sad way to lose a good successful manager. Under him we'd won 3 league titles in 5 years, and he could hold his head up high with some wonderful memories left for all us. As for the board, they were to remain the same for too many more years to come. This should have been the sign that things had to change and modernise but sadly we had to wait for a lot longer for that.
Manager: 1987-1991"If ever a man was made for a specific club, it was Billy McNeill and Glasgow Celtic. He was never really manager here, or at Aston Villa. His heart was always at Parkhead."
Peter Swales (Chairman of Man City 1989)
A commonly asked football trivia question in England is: "Who was the first manager to to manage two relegated teams in the same season?". The answer is sadly "Billy McNeill". His stints between managing Celtic, at Man City & Aston Villa, simply didn't work out for him although at Man City he did have some initial success.
In many ways he was destined to return home, and after Davie Hay was sacked in 1987, Cesar was asked to return as Celtic manager and he said yes almost immediately. It was our Centenary Season (1987-88) and it was hoped for something special to celebrate the year. Cesar was hampered by the loss of a number of a number of key individuals (top scorer Brian McClair for example) but he bought and sold wisely, and the season was a sensation as we romped to the double of league and cup.
It was an emotional time and many placed the triumphs high up in their estimations. However, the squad was young and still weak (possibly one of the weakest to have won the SPL), and things had to be shored up to carry on the success, but it didn't happen. The problem was that Rangers were rejuvenated and strengthening financially off the field which was paying dividends on the field.
Post-centenary, things turned so much into the red that it was just bewildering! In 1989 if the season was done from Jan-Dec we'd have been second bottom in the league. Losing talisman Frank McAvennie was inevitable (to birds & booze as much to West Ham), but replacing him became impossible. A respite for us by winning the Scottish Cup, stopping a Hun treble in 1989, but that was Cesar's last trophy as Celtic manager. The biggest event was the loss of the signing of Mo Johnston to Rangers in 1989, an event that really signalled the poor state the club was in; the signing shook Celtic and Cesar badly.
The nadir for Cesar was the signing of Martin Hayes in 1990. Some say that Arsenal privately laughed over our price and bit our hand off to sell him to us. Others say that we got a player who was well regarded by the Gooners and played a strong role in past seasons for them. In any case, his signing was nothing less than a disaster with few appearances and no plaudits for anything. Long-term injuries hampered the rest of his time at Celtic. From then on there was little Cesar could do regain his reputation, so bad was it sullied by that signing, and sadly Hayes signing is brought up every time Cesar's management spell is spoken about (in jest as much as in seriousness). The biggest problem is that unlike previous failings in the transfer market this one could not be blamed on the board, which was a staple retort to any criticism ever aimed at the coaching team in years gone by.
The writing was on the wall, and it was only a matter of time. Some good results did come about in his final days, in particular the two live games on TV against Rangers which we won (one dubbed the "St Patrick's Day Massacre"), however we still ended the season empty handed after an embarrassing exit from the Scottish Cup thereafter to Motherwell. In fairness, the whole "Sack the Board" events had started to creep in, and so for Cesar there was little help off field for his predicament.
Cesar was effectively sacked in 1991, and there was a mixed view on how it all happened. The anti-board view, fuelled by the press, labelled it as knifing our greatest stalwart in the back as the story was leaked to the press by a mole in the boardroom. Many say a position to retain him at the club should have been made. Billy McNeil was scathing on how it all happened, especially critical of then Chief Executive Terry Cassidy's handling of the affair.
On the other hand, there was likely no position for Cesar suitable or worthy for him other than being on the board, but possibly the boardroom was not suited for him. It's no easy decision to have to let go of one of the greatest stalwarts in the club's history, but he was a highly paid manager and results couldn't hide the failure in his last tenure. A clean break is sometimes for the best.
It was a sorry end to his management career but the good memories definitely outweigh the bad, and we will remember him as fondly for having been our manager as much as having been one of our players.
Club Ambassador: 2009-PresentIn July 2009 Celtic announced that Billy McNeill had been named as the club's ambassador in recognition of his contribution to Celtic over so many years.
Major honours as Celtic managerScottish Championship
The Nickname "Cesar"Everyone seems to know that Billy McNeill's nickname is Cesar, and then have images of the rampaging Roman leader Julius Caesar rising above all others at the Coliseum. When you see the pictures of Billy McNeill holding aloft the European Cup in 1967 on being presented the trophy after the victory over Inter Milan, it is easy to see how the comparisons come about. Cries and headlines of "Hail Cesar" are not uncommon either when his name is mentioned.
Alas, it is an easy mistake for anyone to make. Firstly note, its "Cesar" not "Caesar", and the nickname is not actually in reference to the old Roman leader!
His nickname actually derives from being one of the only Celtic team players to own a vehicle at the time, and was inspired by a role in the movie Ocean's Eleven (the original version) played by the actor Cesar Romero who acted as the gang's getaway driver in the film. Cesar Romero was, at the time, one of the original Hollywood bratpack of Sinatra, Romero, Sammy Davies Jnr., Dean Martin etc, a million miles away from Billy McNeill's real persona.
Still, the mistake is carried on by many, and even Billy McNeill himself has played along with it, with an autobiography of his having been titled "Hail Cesar", carrying over the spelling difference!!!
|Club Performance|| ||League|| ||Cup|| ||League Cup||Continental||Total|| |
|Scotland|| ||League|| ||Scottish Cup||Scottish League Cup||Europe|| ||Total|| |
|Career Total|| ||486||22||94||7||137||4||69||3||789*||37†|
|* Includes 3 Appearances in the World Club Championship|| || || || || || || |
|† Includes 1 Goal in the World Club Championship|| || || || || || || || |
- For Celtic & Scotland by Billy McNeill (1966)
- Back to Paradise by by Alex Cameron (1988)
- Hail Cesar by Billy McNeill (2004)
- The Billy McNeill Story (2009)
Quotes"If ever a man was made for a specific club, it was Billy McNeill and Glasgow Celtic. He was never really manager here, or at Aston Villa. His heart was always at Parkhead."
Peter Swales (Chairman of Man City 1989)
'I've always seen us as the Cavaliers and them as the Roundheads.'
Billy McNeill on Celtic and Rangers
"There's as much chance of [Frank] McAvennie moving as there is of Rangers beating us 5-1 tomorrow."
Billy McNeil, Celtic (Manager) commenting on reports that McAvennie was heading back to London.
We did lose 5-1 the next day, and McAvennie left soon after!
'We climbed three mountains then proceeded to throw ourselves off.'
Billy McNeil on losing out on away goals, 6-6, to Partizan Belgrade.
"It (winning the European Cup) might have been for Scotland, but it definitely wasn't for Britain... it was for Celtic."
Billy McNeill on European Cup Final win of 1967 (1995)
"Somebody compared him to Billy McNeill, but I don’t remember Billy being crap!”
Tommy Docherty, the legendary football coach, on Rangers’ Italian flop Lorenzo Amoruso in 2000.
"Times change. Not always for the better. The great Billy McNeill. from Celtic's European cup winning side, told BBC radio yesterday that his dressing room nick-name was Cesar, after the getaway driver in Sinatra's Oceans Eleven, because he was the only one of the lads with a car...Craig Bellamy isn't fit to be mentioned in the same breath as a real sporting hero such as McNeill.".
David Mellor (ex-Tory MP & London newspaper Evening Standard sports columnist & Chelsea fan 2006)
"A man of true integrity and humility, Billy is someone who will always be held in the highest of esteem by the Club and its supporters. We are delighted to offer Billy this role - there is no finer individual to receive such an accolade.”
John Reid (Celtic Chairman) announcing Billy McNeill's appointment as Club Ambassador in July 2009.
“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 decade.”
Jock stein on Billy McNeill in the testimonial match program v Liverpool 1974
"The Manchester derby is like a March wind. The Old Firm's a January hurricane."
Billy McNeill on Celtic v Rangers matches (1993)
"Angels don't win you anything except a place in heaven. Football teams need one or two vagabonds."
Billy McNeill (1983)
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