Billy McNeill. Celtic legend. The heart of the lions of Lisbon

Billy McNeill. Celtic legend. The heart of the lions of Lisbon

Billy McNeill has passed away in a hospice at the age of 79. He had for several years been a victim of dementia. A sad ending for a giant of Scottish football, most notably with Celtic.

The club itself tweeted: “The Celtic FC family is mourning the death of Billy McNeill, the club’s greatest ever captain and one of the finest men to have played and managed the Hoops, who has passed away at the age of 79. Rest in peace, Cesar. You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The stats read:- 790 Games .34 Goals. 13 League Championships. 10 Scottish Cups. 7 League Cups. 1 European Cup.

Celtic’s 2-1 victory over Inter Milan in the final of the 1966-67 European Cup will live long in the memory of those alive at the time. Coming a year after England won the World Cup, suddenly British football was at the forefront of the game. McNeill lead his ‘Lions of Lisbon’ side to victory over one of the most feared teams in world football and he became the first British captain to lift the trophy.

Jim Craig, another fine Celtic defender in his day said: “Heartbroken over the passing of my great friend and captain. A huge blow for the Celtic family but a devastating loss for Liz, Susan Libby Carol, Paula and Martyn. My thoughts and prayers are with them today. RIP my friend.”

Senior football journalist and author Norman Giller wrote: “The world has lost a proper leader today, skipper Billy McNeill. What a player, what a man. He was the heartbeat of the Lisbon Lions, arguably the greatest of all British teams.”

Years ago, the giant of Scottish football management Jock Stein said: “What makes a great player? He’s the one who brings out the best in others. When I am saying that I’m talking about Billy McNeill.” 

Comedian and writer Frankie Boyle met Billy later in life. He tweeted: “I talked to Billy McNeill in his pub a couple of times, and it was quite something to be in the presence of someone who was a very ordinary, gentlemanly kind of character, and simultaneously a kind of mythic figure. Rest in Peace.”

billy mcneill in lisbon with the cup

Estádio Nacional in Lisbon. 1967, Billy, a big cup and even bigger crowd

The famous European Cup victory in Portugal ended a season which saw Celtic win an unprecedented five trophies, adding all three domestic titles as well as the Glasgow Cup.

McNeill went into management soon after his retirement, starting out with Clyde and Aberdeen, and he returned to Celtic in 1978 where he would secure the league title on the final day of the season with a famous 4-2 win over Rangers.

Two more titles would follow in his first spell in charge, which came to an end in 1983 when he moved to England to manage Manchester City, then a Second Division team, and guided them to promotion.

McNeill moved on from City to Aston Villa early in the 1986-87 season before returning to Celtic the following summer and overseeing a league and cup double in his first year back. It was Celtic’s centenary season.

A Scottish Cup victory in 1989 would be his last honour with the club, which had hit some difficult financial times, and he was sacked in 1991 from what turned out to be his last full-time managerial role.

McNeill, who was given an MBE in 1974, was voted Celtic’s greatest-ever captain in 2002 and returned to the club he had served for so many years in 2009 as an ambassador. In 2015 he was immortalised in bronze as an iconic statue outside Celtic Park celebrating that famous day in Lisbon.

billy mcneill in later life

In later life. Billy McNeill with the statue in his honour

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