Billy McNeill: 'He's Mr Celtic to me' - fans pay tribute to club great

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Fans gathered at the statue of Billy McNeill to pay their respects
Fans gathered at the statue of Billy McNeill to pay their respects to the former Celtic captain and manager

They'd been coming to the statue all day, waves of Celtic fans of all ages standing at the feet of their colossus cast in bronze, looking up at him in death just as they looked up at him in life.

Some brought flowers, some brought jerseys, some brought scarves, some brought photographs. Some brought their mums and dads. Some brought their kids and grandkids. In the middle of this sea of green there was some Rangers blue. Respect across the divide. Some people have the power and the class to transcend even the most bitter of rivalries and Billy McNeill was unquestionably one of them.

That's greatness for you. Greatness draws a crowd from every corner.

Earlier in the year, Scotland lost one of its greatest writers in Hugh McIlvanney. "In the language of the sports pages, greatness is plentiful," he once wrote. "The reality of sport, like that of every other area of life, shows that it is desperately rare. Greatness does not gad about, reaching for people in handfuls. It settles deliberately on a blessed few..." He was talking of Matt Busby, but Celtic people will feel that those words apply just as easily to McNeill.

Greatness takes many forms. It comes with all the trophies he won as a Celtic player and all the trophies he won as a Celtic manager. It comes with all the iconic images of his great days and the off-field stories of his natural decency and integrity and humility.

'Beautiful scene at Celtic Park'

Watch: 'Billy was the top man; he'll never be forgotten'

As the light started to fade on Tuesday evening, there was something beautiful about that scene at Celtic Park. There were stories told as if it was a warm camp fire they were gathered around and not a bronze sculpture set on a granite plinth. There were lovely little images of parents bringing their kids to see the statue sure in the knowledge that they were still too young to get the significance of what was going on while retaining hope that in later life that they'd remember being there and being glad of it.

In 45 minutes spent at the statue that pays homage to Celtic's greatest on-field leader the age range was vast, from the three-month old baby carried by her father, to Veronica Strain, a Celtic woman for 70 of her 79 years, who was brought there by her son.

There was Helen Traynor, who arrived with three generations of her family. There was Martin Coyle, who was there with his young daughter Mara. There was Joe Britton - Gerry's dad - standing quietly to one side. In his pocket he had a picture. Gerry and Billy together and smiling on the day the young man became a Celtic player. "He signed my son," said Joe. That photograph, you suspect, means an awful lot to Joe Britton.

'There will never be another McNeill'

McNeill belonged to a simpler footballing age, a time when it was a whole lot easier to identify the real giants of the game. Celtic became European champions not because of the size of their wallet but because of the scale of their talent and the brilliance of their management. In McNeill's day that was all that counted. A match to determine to best was left to 11 v 11. The Russian oligarchs, the Emirati royals, the Chinese billionaires and the Qatari state had no say back then.

The club has recently lost their former manager, Brendan Rodgers, to Leicester City. In the twisted reality of football as it is today, Leicester are deemed, by some, as a bigger club than Celtic because of their ownership, because of the outrageous sums they make in TV revenues, because they can pay the kind of wages that Celtic can never pay. Money has skewed the picture horribly and there's no going back.

There will never be another McNeill because the dice is loaded now. Swansea, Stoke and West Brom - the three relegated clubs from last season's Premier League - were paid almost £100m a head for being hopeless. The top dogs from Manchester, City and United, made £150m.

There are plans afoot in Europe to turn the Champions League into a closed shop, a plaything for the super rich clubs with the occasional minion being allowed in the door to have a look around from time to time. The way of things has it that Paris St-Germain, with all the money in the world but with no European Cup, are deemed infinitely bigger than Ajax, who have a fraction of the spending power but who have four European Cups and are in with a chance of winning a fifth in the weeks ahead.

In McNeill's era there was a fairness that doesn't exist any more, there was an opportunity for a team to go all the way and be celebrated for it. For many years after Celtic won in Lisbon the big prize went backwards and forwards across Europe, from the Netherlands to England to Germany to Romania to Portugal to Italy to France to the former Yugoslavia. Now the reign in Spain has put the others down the drain.

Real Madrid and Barcelona have won the last five between them and seven of the last 10. For all of Ajax's heroics this season, Barca are still favourites to continue that run. And to make sure that Ajax don't threaten the natural order again next year, the vultures will descend and pick their team apart piece by piece. Frenkie de Jong has already been signed by, yes, Barcelona. Given the names of the clubs linked with him, it'll be a miracle if Matthijs de Ligt doesn't leave along with him. It might be the food chain in action, but it's grim.

European football was once a place where fairytales could happen, but not so much anymore. If Snow White was a footballer she'd find it hard not to leave the Seven Dwarves for the Wicked Queen. Cinderella stories are getting thinner on the ground.

Watch: McNeill on his heroes, Stein & Lisbon

'He is everything we are and want to be'

When we say that there will never be another McNeill, a European Cup winning-Celtic captain, we do so in awe at what his Lisbon Lions team achieved but also in sadness that so many clubs, huge in stature but relatively small in budget, can't dream that big anymore. That fact wasn't lost on all those who arrived at the statue at Celtic Park.

"I've been driving about in the van crying all day," says Andrew Strain. "Big Billy - he's always been there, hasn't he? Throughout my life, he's always been there. He's Mr Celtic to me. He's everything we are and everything we want to be."

Football has changed, but some things remain constant - and McNeill's place in the hearts of Celtic people is one of those things.

The superpower clubs have altered, and will continue to alter, the European Cup to suit their own agenda, but they can't change history. That stays. And so, too, in many senses, does Billy McNeill.

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