Martin Donaldson with A Celtic State of Mind – Legendary Partnerships: Billy McNeill & John Clark

A little under two years after that famous 7-1 rout over our old rivals at Hampden Park in October 1957, when Celtic won the League Cup for only the second time, the club found itself again in a period of transition. The nucleus of a world class team was beginning to take shape (they just didn’t know it yet) with some players making the move from reserve to first team.

A young John Clark made his debut at 18 years of age in a 5-0 victory away to Arbroath on 19 October 1959. This match is special on two counts: Firstly, at the time this was the youngest ever Celtic team to take the field, with an average age of just over 21 years; secondly, it was the first time that both John Clark and Billy McNeill played a first-team match together. That partnership blossomed under the tutelage of Jock Stein less than a decade later.

When Billy was scoring hugely significant goals against Dunfermline, Vojvodina and Racing Club on the way to domestic dominance and European glory, John Clark was the rock at the heart of the Celtic defence – the extra insurance that allowed the rest of our greatest team to, in the words of Bertie Auld, “entertain”.

When the time came for Celtic to change the management team in the late ‘70s, it was a natural choice for Cesar and The Brush to lead the club into the new decade. The new management team celebrated with fans as further victories came in the form of three league titles, one Scottish Cup and one League Cup. Both men, seen as legendary figures in Celtic’s history and indeed the Scottish game, continued their involvement with football – Billy as an analyst on TV and John as kit-man at the club he served most of his life. Ambassador roles for two truly magnificent club servants followed, allowing both men to maintain their interactions with the club on match days and at supporters club gatherings around the world.

John perhaps is the only man to have been involved with Celtic during each of our six treble celebrations, either as player, kit-man or club ambassador and he was filmed for an advert detailing his dedication to Celtic.

In recognition of the service given by our greatest ever captain, a magnificent statue was unveiled at the foot of the Celtic Way. The iconic moment where Billy McNeill held aloft the greatest prize in European club football, forever sculpted in praise of Cesar. Billy and his family were there to celebrate his achievements, but sadly the effects of his condition reminded us all of the frailty of life.

Throughout the latter years of Billy’s life, John continued to be that very rock that Jock Stein asked him to be during the club’s rise in the ‘60s, but it was no longer on the football pitch or in the dugout. He remained a rock to Billy and his family, diligently walking and caring for Billy during his rare public appearances.

As far as partnerships go, the Lisbon Lions were blessed in every position and permutation, both on and off the field – ‘total football’ before the term was coined years later. However, the level of dedication to each other as the years passed by only became greater and the role in which John Clark played then and now can never be overlooked.

Martin Donaldson

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