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Sunday 19 May 2019

Death of true Celtic legend

ICON: Former Celtic captain Billy McNeill beside a statue in his honour outside Celtic Park in 2015. Pic: Reuters
ICON: Former Celtic captain Billy McNeill beside a statue in his honour outside Celtic Park in 2015. Pic: Reuters

It is a point of irony that when Celtic skipper Billy McNeill strode up the steps at Lisbon's Estadio Nacional to claim his moment in history, he did so alone.

As the first British man to get his hands on the European Cup, McNeill - who died on Monday night, aged 79 - will go down as one of football's finest leaders.

But he was denied the opportunity to share the moment of glory after his side's famous 2-1 triumph over Inter Milan on May 25, 1967, with the men who had helped him achieve it.

As referee Kurt Tschenscher blew the final whistle, the jubilant Hoops support spilled onto the pitch to celebrate being crowned kings of the continent.

Some of his team-mates - all born within a 30-mile ring surrounding Glasgow - were stripped of their jerseys but the invasion was good-natured.

MAGIC MOMENT: Billy McNeill receives the European Cup from the President of Portugal in 1967. Pic: Getty
MAGIC MOMENT: Billy McNeill receives the European Cup from the President of Portugal in 1967. Pic: Getty

The nervy Portuguese authorities, however, feared the worst and decided on safety grounds that only McNeill would be allowed to take to the podium and lift the "trophy with big ears", as he liked to call it, while the rest of Jock Stein's players remained in the dressing room.

And so, the iconic photograph that was taken in the moments afterwards shows the Celtic captain, looking drained but proud, hoisting the cup aloft but with his team-mates conspicuous by their absence. In his autobiography, McNeill admitted that strange twist of events never sat easy with him.

He wrote: "I remember thinking, 'Where are my team-mates? Why am I the only one here?'

"The Lisbon Lions were a collective. We were a team both on and off the pitch and it felt wrong that we were denied the chance to share such a special moment."

Leadership came easy to McNeill.

Born in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, on March 2, 1940, he was the son of a Black Watch soldier and the military influence on his upbringing ensured he was comfortable dishing out orders.

He signed for Celtic from Blantyre Victoria in August 1957 and a year later made his debut in a League Cup tie against Clyde at Parkhead.

But his first seven years at the club gave little indication of the spoils that were set to flood down upon the Glasgow side as he finished campaign after campaign empty handed.

He almost left to join Bill Nicholson's Tottenham in 1965, just two years after being appointed Hoops captain.

Persuaded

"I thought Celtic were a club going nowhere," he later admitted. "I just didn't think they were going to be successful. They lost good players."

He was only persuaded to stay by a change in the club's management - but it transpired to be a wise decision as Celtic were set on the path to greatness.

"Soon after big Jock arrived - the rest, as they say, is history," he added.

It was McNeill who ended the club's long trophy drought, which had stretched back to 1957, when he powered home the winning header in the final of the 1965 Scottish Cup. By then, Stein had transformed the Hoops into the slick, well-drilled machine which would go on to win nine straight league titles.

While the rest of his side were focused on pouring forward, the captain was a defender first and foremost, with a fearsome approach to jousts both on the ground and in the air.

But it was his ability to cajole and organise his team-mates which was of most value to Stein.

Those attributes were never more required than in the 1967 European Cup final when Celtic fell behind to Sandro Mazzola's sixth-minute penalty.

Inter and their famed rear-guard were perfectly placed to choke the life out of the game but McNeill and Celtic refused to panic, hitting back through Tommy Gemmell and Stevie Chalmers to seal the most glorious of victories.

Bertie Auld, a fellow Lisbon Lion, summed up his captain when he said: "Big Billy was a natural leader. He had presence and arrogance without being big-headed."

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