“I don’t think I would ever be able to capture in words what Billy McNeill means to me as a Celtic fan. Here is my attempt to express how that centenary team was my team, and all because Billy was able weave his magic one more time.”
In the summer of 1987, Celtic found themselves in the very unusual position of finishing behind their city rivals in the Scottish top flight. Not since the end of season 1977/78 had Celtic finished behind Rangers in the league, but the second half of the 1986/87 season had seen them give up the title they had won in dramatic fashion at Love Street the year before.
A lead at the top of the table in early 1987 was gone by mid-March and the title was lost in the penultimate match of the season. To add to the disappointment of ending the season without silverware, Celtic also lost a number of key players throughout the team. Davie Hay was sacked, Brain McClair, Mo Johnston, Murdo MacLeod and Danny McGrain all left for pastures new.
The Celtic team were needing a major overhaul and the club were stumbling towards their centenary season celebrations without someone to lead and manage the team.
When the managerial announcement was made, the emotional heartstrings that run through Celtic Football Club were pulled on, as our greatest ever captain returned to lead a team in need of a renewed will to win. Billy McNeill’s decorated playing career with Celtic had propelled the towering centre-back to legendary status across the footballing world: 9 Scottish League titles, 7 Scottish Cup wins, 6 League Cup wins and, of course, he captained the team who conquered all in front of them to lift the European Cup in Lisbon in 1967.
Under a spell as manager in the late-1970s and early-1980s, Billy delivered further success with 3 league titles, 1 Scottish Cup and 1 League Cup.
Celtic had not just appointed a manager, they had appointed a natural leader, a winner, and a man who knew the Scottish game inside out.
The rebuilding process got underway with the arrival of Andy Walker, Billy Stark and Chris Morris. Mick McCarthy had also made the switch to the East End of Glasgow in a deal sown up prior to Cesar’s return to Celtic Park. When the final pieces of transfer business were complete, Joe Miller and Frank McAvennie were added to an attack-minded team, built to entertain ‘the Celtic way’. The squad inherited by Billy already had some strong characters and Celtic-minded players… Roy Aitken, Tommy Burns and Paul McStay would all play a part in what would become a memorable season.
Billy McNeill moulded a team of winners in that most spectacular of seasons where Celtic achieved another milestone as they became the first club to win the league in their centenary year. The dream double was achieved in typically dramatic style with two late goals from Frank McAvennie to overcome Dundee United at Hampden Park.
When you listen to the players as they reminisce about our centenary season, the praise of the boss who guided them to the triumph is unending – A motivator and leader… an inspiration to those he worked with – Billy, on the other hand, was always modest in his self-appraisal.
For all the fairy tale stories woven into the fabric of Celtic Football Club, Billy McNeill is centre stage for so many of them. The iconic figure of our captain of captains, manager and ambassador will forever be embedded in the hearts and minds of Celtic fans throughout the world.Listen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast