Few people know Billy McNeill better than Mike Jackson, who played alongside Billy with Celtic in the late 1950s, and who has been close friends with him ever since. Mike spoke to Tom Campbell on 29 November 2018, one day after he had visited Billy…
Q.) How far back do you and Billy McNeill go?
We played Junior football at much the same time, I with Benburb and Billy with Blantyre Victoria. We then joined Celtic at the same time in 1957 and were in the reserves and the first team together for several seasons. And, of course, we’ve been pals ever since.
Q.) As a youngster, Billy was considered a prodigy. Do you agree with that assessment?
100%. You could see even as a teenager he was going to make it. A natural defender, strong in the tackle, unbeatable in the air. He was always a practical player, absolutely no fancy-Dan stuff. Sensible for a youngster and mature beyond his years.
Q.) Bobby Evans was Celtic’s centre-half at the time, and so Billy had to wait for his chance. How long was that period?
Well, he got into the team as a right-back, and I remember him being fielded at right-half for some games. When Bobby was sidelined with back-trouble, Billy got an extended run at centre-half, and he did very well. A hard tackler, Billy was a very useful right-back. In those days, that was a very different position: full backs defended, and that was it… they took no prisoners, we used to say they played keepy-up with the wingers… some of them were just hammer-throwers, but not Billy, though.
Q.) Apparently, Bob Kelly was occasionally suspicious about the off-field antics of young Celtic players. True?
The chairman was strict, too much so at times, and a lot of people used to tell him things. There was a bunch of us and we used to hang about together: Billy and me, Bertie (Auld), Paddy (Crerand), John (Colrain). It was all very innocent: after training we would meet at Ferarri’s for lunch or a coffee, we might go and play snooker, no drinking… but somebody clyped to Bob Kelly. He called us in, one at a time, warned us about our conduct, laid down the law. All of us were under suspicion for a while, all of us except Billy. The chairman accepted his version of events apparently without question; not us, though… and do you know something? All of us – except Billy, of course – were eventually transferred; Billy was the only one of the group to play his whole career for Celtic.
Q.) What are your thoughts about the statue at the Celtic Way?
I’m no judge of sculpture, but it’s very nice, isn’t it? Frankly, if anybody deserves a statue at Celtic Park, it’s Billy. A lifetime there as a player, a captain, a manager and an ambassador. What a career with Celtic!
Q.) Billy was highly respected throughout the game. How did he get on with Rangers, and their players?
He was always up for the matches against Rangers. He knew how much a win over them meant to our supporters, and Billy McNeill was as much a supporter as anybody. But he was a professional: they were usually our closest competitors, and so he was always ready for them… and he made us ready too.
But it was nothing personal. He recognized that Rangers’ players were under the same pressure as we were. He got on very well with some of them, players like Jim Baxter and Willie Henderson… and I know he had a lot of time for John Greig (and there was no more typical Ranger than John).
Q.) He had a glittering career as a player, but did he ever mention any disappointments?
No, he didn’t dwell too much on defeats. As a professional player, you know you’re going to lose games and Billy accepted that. Remember that, when he started out with Celtic, the club was in a shambolic state and Billy got used to losing in those days. Some games in those days were hard to take, especially that cup-final defeat from Dunfermline when their keeper had the game of his life to defy us. He did mention frequently that going to Aston Villa as their manager was the worst mistake he made in football; he had been happy enough in Manchester at the time.
Q.) As we all know, Billy’s health has been a concern for some time. Are you still in touch with him?
As a matter of fact, I was round to see him yesterday (27 November 2018) and I try to see him a couple of times a week… but it’s hard to accept what has happened. He’s being well looked after by Liz and the family. I think their house is almost next door to the hospice where Billy is now a resident.
We are extremely grateful to Mike Jackson for taking the time to answer our questions, and appreciate the fact that it is a difficult time for all friends and admirers of Billy McNeill.Listen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast