Everyone remembers Billy holding up the European Cup in Lisbon. What a magnificent sight that was. As Celtic’s greatest ever captain, he led the team out during the club’s golden years, not just in Scotland but on the European stage.
Proudly leading the Celts out in the Mestalla stadium in our first ever European match in September 1962 was Billy. In that game, Celtic got their first taste of continental football but were sadly knocked out of the competition in the first round after losing out to Valencia 6-4 on aggregate after two legs.
Under the management of Celtic legend Jimmy McGrory, the club competed in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup consistently after 1962 until his departure in 1965. The run which stands out over this period occurred in season 1963/64 as McNeill as captain led the side to the semi-final of the competition against MTK Budapest having dismissed FC Basel, Dinamo Zagreb and Slovan Bratislava along the way.
After a resounding 3-0 victory at Celtic Park with goals coming from Jimmy Johnstone and Stevie Chalmers (2), it looked as though the club was heading to a European final. However, Robert Kelly wanted to show the people of Hungary how great a side Celtic were in the away leg. The game in Budapest unfortunately finished 4-0, which ended Celtic’s hopes of the final at the Camp Nou.Listen to GIANNI CAPALDI with A Celtic State of Mind here:
The arrival of Jock Stein at Celtic Park would turn around the fortunes of the club in every sense. In his first full season, he led Celtic to the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Billy McNeill once again gave the impersonation of a centre forward and cracked in a spectacular goal against Aarhus in the second round of the competition. The final of this tournament was not to be after Liverpool knocked Celtic out under controversial circumstances at Anfield. The might of the soon-to-be Scottish champions was beginning to show and, the next year, they would get their first opportunity in the European Cup.
Having already captained the side to two European semi-finals, it was now time for Billy and his other teammates to test themselves on the grandest stage of them all. It looked as though a replay of the quarter-final tie against Vojvodina in Rotterdam beckoned as the clock ticked down at Celtic Park. With less than a minute to go, Celtic forced yet another corner which Charlie Gallagher once again hurried over to take. Rising above everyone in the air was Billy McNeill to head the ball into the net to send Celtic Park crazy. That combination of Gallagher and McNeill had once again paid off like it had done two years previously in the 1965 Scottish Cup final. Dukla Prague were then knocked out over two legs to send Celtic on their way to Lisbon.
Two of the most famous photographs on 25 May 1967 depict McNeill in all his glory as the Celtic leader. Leading the team out the tunnel after joining in on Bertie Auld’s rendition of the Celtic Song was the man who was about to become immortalised. With Celtic going forward so much during the match, the defenders had to keep focused. After Inter were awarded a dubious penalty early on, it was wave after wave of Celtic attack. There has been much debate about the nickname of Billy McNeill – whether it’s Cesar or Caesar. Personally, I prefer to go with Cesar after the actor, Cesar Romero, as Billy was the only player to have a car back then. On this day, however, in the soaring heat of Lisbon was a Bellshill boy looking like a Roman Emperor, having conquered Europe, lifting the European Cup aloft in a new coliseum which would become consecrated ground by all Celtic supporters.
With Celtic now being crowned European champions, the club would take on Argentinian side Racing Club in the World Club Championship. It was an evening of dreadful tension at Hampden Park in front of a remarkable crowd of well over 100,000 spectators. On the night, Stein’s side deserved to win the game as they never gave up against the rugged Racing defence. The breakthrough eventually came on the 69th minute when John Hughes swept in a marvellous corner which was headed in powerfully by McNeill having been shoved, pushed and jostled before it.
Disappointingly, this competition was not to be after a horrendous play-off tie in Montevideo. Until his retirement in 1975, McNeil served Celtic with distinction on the European stage. As captain, he led the club to an astonishing 2 European Cup finals, 6 semi-finals and 8 quarter-finals.
Moments like the 1970 final against Feyenoord do happen to all the greats and his presence in the team was needed, which is shown by his magnificent record. Celtic were a European super power!
Among his remarkable 790 appearances for Celtic Football Club, McNeill played in 72 continental fixtures for Celtic, scoring four goals.
In his career, he achieved everything and is inseparable from Celtic Football Club’s history. He will remain immortal forever and never be forgotten.
“They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind.”
Declan McConvilleWatch Sophie Millar’s stunning rendition of ‘Come Back Paddy Reilly’: