Colin Watt with A Celtic State of Mind – Billy McNeill’s second spell will always be special

Billy McNeill – The Difficult Second Album

There’s a saying in football: “Once you leave a club, you’ll never be the same if you go back.”

Over the years, there are plenty of examples of this from managers and players alike. Players like Robbie Fowler at Liverpool, Kaka at AC Milan and even Shaun Maloney at Celtic – sometimes the memories of the first spell should just be left behind as their legacy at the club.

Currently at Celtic, we are in the process of seeing what happens when a manager returns for a second spell in charge of a club with Neil Lennon in the hot seat. At first, Celtic fans were split about Lenny’s return, but it has to be said that most, if not all, those doubts have been put to bed with the Rebel Treble and another league trophy closer to 10-in-a-row.

However, before Lenny, another Celtic legend was to make his return to the Parkhead dugout. A mere four years after leaving Celtic Park following a fallout over the sale of Charlie Nicholas to Arsenal, Lisbon Lion Billy McNeill returned to the club that held a special place in his heart. It was a real boost for Celtic, who had been through a tough spell over the four years during which McNeill had been absent. Davie Hay had led the side through that time and won just the one league title; that famous day at Love Street when some help from Albert Kidd brought the title to Paradise. There was also a Scottish Cup win in 1985, but a barren 1986/87 campaign led to the awkward departure of Hay and the return of fans’ favourite, Billy McNeill.

McNeill, himself, didn’t enjoy the success he’d have hoped for down south. Whilst he managed to get promotion for his Manchester City team in the 1984/85 season, his departure to manage former European Cup winners Aston Villa turned sour and McNeill could only lead the team to last place in the old English First Division. McNeill stood down and was replaced by then Watford manager, Graham Taylor. It wasn’t long before Jack McGinn and the Celtic board came calling to entice McNeill to take over the reins, and that is generally how we all believed the story went. The failing board called upon a hero to turn around the fortunes of the side, but things could have been so so different…

On a recent ACSOM podcast, sports journalist Neil Cameron confirmed to us that, back in 1987, the Dundee United legend Jim McLean was sounded out for the role as Celtic Manager. McLean had transformed Dundee United into a powerful force in Scottish football in the early 1980s, in fact, in the season that Billy McNeill left Celtic for the first time (1982/83), Dundee United won the Premier Division by a single point from McNeill’s side – to date, still United’s only top-flight title victory. McLean, fresh from taking United to the UEFA cup final against IFK
Gothenburg, decided that much like the other job offers he had received during his time at Tannadice, he was happy and settled in Dundee. By the time McLean retired, United had been the only side he had managed from 1971-1993 – a level of loyalty now unheard of in these modern times.

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McNeill was faced with a difficult task when he took over at Celtic Park: Players like Brian McClair, Mo Johnston, Murdo MacLeod and Alan McInally all left for pastures new in the pre-season of 1987/88; Danny McGrain, then
37, was given a free transfer by the club; whilst Davie Provan retired with ill health. Davie Hay had brought in Mick McCarthy from Manchester City just prior to being relieved from his managerial duties, and the big Yorkshireman was soon reunited with his former Maine Road gaffer.

Cesar set about adding some quality to his squad as Celtic looked to celebrate their centenary year by aiming to win back the Scottish Premier League. Before the season had started, Billy Stark, Chris Morris and Andy Walker had all joined McNeill’s side, whilst guys like Allen McKnight and Lex Baillie were called into the first-team squad from the reserves.

By October 1987, some were doubting whether McNeill should have returned to the club as Celtic were knocked out of the League Cup by Aberdeen, and the UEFA Cup by Borussia Dortmund. Meanwhile, McNeill’s new-look Celts were sitting 3 points behind Hearts, and it looked as though it would just be another one of those seasons. McNeill was given the backing of the board, however, and added Frank McAvennie and Joe Miller to his squad in what was an inspired move as the team went on to drop only 7 points between October and the end of the season. This culminated in centenary celebrations, as the title was wrapped up with a double figures point lead over Hearts in second place.

The icing was put on the cake in front of 68,000 fans in the middle of May under the Hampden sunshine as Celtic battled back from a Kevin Gallacher goal to score a last-minute winner from new fans’ favourite Frank McAvennie to secure a famous centenary double.

The second season syndrome hit Celtic very early with 6 of the first 9 games ending up in defeats and basically the title race was over by 1 October 1988 as the Celts found themselves languishing in 7th place in the table. Pressure on McNeill was mounting again… Goalkeeper Packie Bonner was injured, Alan Rough was brought in for cover, but his defence left him exposed during his five appearances for the Hoops. McNeill wasn’t given the same sort of backing that he had received the year before, and only Steve McCahill (£100k) and Tommy Coyne (£500k) joined, whilst Frank McAvennie departed back down to West Ham United for £1.25m. Celtic bounced back throughout the season but 11 defeats from 36 league games was good enough for only third place in the league. There would be some cause for celebration, though, for the Celtic faithful – a victory over Rangers in the Scottish Cup final with Joe Miller scoring the only goal of the game.

Rangers started their domination of Scottish football around this period, with players like England Captain Terry Butcher, goalkeeper Chris Woods, Graeme Souness, Mark Walters and Ally McCoist all lining up for Rangers the day that Joe Miller won Celtic the Scottish Cup for the send year in succession. The victory over them was a major achievement for McNeill’s side. Rangers had just been taken over by local businessman David Murray, who we later found out was spending much more money than the club could afford to pay out to bring in players like Butcher, Richard Gough and, in later years, Brian Laudrup, Stefan Klos and Tore Andre Flo.

McNeill, on the other hand, was shopping in a bit of a different market and it was ultimately his dealings in the transfer market which attributed to the league positions that the club found itself in. Following the centenary double when Celtic should have bought from a position of strength, Ian Andrews was signed for £300k only to make five appearances before being moved on for £200k the following season. There were also departures of key influential members of the dressing room in subsequent season – Tommy Burns, Roy Aitken, Mick McCarthy and Mark McGhee were never adequately replaced. That’s not to say that the signings McNeill made were all terrible – guys like Paul Elliott joined from Pisa whilst the Polish revolution was in full swing with Dariusz Dziekanowski and Dariusz Wdowczyk signing from Legia Warsaw. These were players who went on to make an influence within the Celtic side, unlike one particular signing who is worth mentioning – Martin Hayes.

Hayes was a promising English youngster with a one-in-three goalscoring record during his 100 games for Arsenal. With Alan Smith and Paul Merson in-front of him, however, a move to Celtic seemed like the ideal career opportunity for Hayes and, on 29 September 1990, Celtic paid £650k for the Englishman to travel up to Glasgow and sign on at Celtic Park. That, unfortunately, is about the highlight of that story as Martin Hayes went on to make a total of 10 appearances over the course of 2 years at Celtic before being released on a free transfer. It was said that McNeill’s successor Liam Brady once told Hayes, who had missed training after turning up early and falling asleep in his car only to miss the whole session, “To be honest, Martin, no one even noticed you were missing.”

These are unfortunately the kind of signings that sum up the second spell of Billy McNeill’s rein as Celtic manager, the centenary season was followed up by 35 league defeats in 108 games over the next three seasons as Celtic toiled to third, fifth and third over the seasons, never threatening to mount any sort of challenge for the league. The Barren years were certainly well underway and unfortunately for a man with the stature of Billy McNeill, he was in the hot-seat as the team from the other half of the city’s financial doping years kicked into full gear.

Fortunately for Cesar’s legacy, all that the fanbase truly remember of his second spell in charge is that wonderful season in 1988, as the club turned over 100 years of unbroken history and Frank McAvennie brought home the Scottish Cup under the sunshine of Hampden Park. They say never go back in football, and that might be true, but what a moment of Celtic history we might have missed had Cesar not answered that call.

Colin Watt

Watch Sophie Millar’s stunning rendition of ‘Come Back Paddy Reilly’:

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