The word legend is overused in football. Even the most heroic of players should remain heroes during their lifetimes, becoming legends only when they are gone.
The same goes for statues: they should be memorials to the dead rather than a homage to the living, But there are a few exceptions to every rule, and Billy McNeill was one of them. He earned that legend status as the unique leader of an unique team. And it was entirely appropriate that he should be present, along with thousands of Celtic supporters, when his triumphal statue was unveiled on a chilly Glasgow day in 2015.
Other captains of British clubs have held the European Cup aloft since Celtic won it in 1967, but he was the first, and it genuinely was a glorious victory, achieved with a team performance that eventually blew away the strongest defensive side of their day, and in doing so altered the course of football history.
It was typical of the bond that united those players that Bertie Auld could joke that McNeill was the only one of them who could lift the trophy that day as he hadn’t had much to do. In reality their weary captain had only just made it to the safety of the dressing room before being told he had to go back across the pitch for the presentation.
Years later he said: “I’ve never had a tougher job than accepting the European Cup. It was the most stirring and exciting moment of my life. But I had to steel myself for it. I had just crossed the safety line into our dressing room at Lisbon after being swamped by our fans. My back ached with all the slapping, my jersey had been torn off as a souvenir.”
So he had to run the gauntlet again and climb across a six-foot moat before receiving the trophy from the President of Portugal. He stood alone, as in that statue, and it was typical of the man that it troubled him:
“I remember thinking, ‘Where are my team-mates? Why am I the only one here?’” he wrote in his autobiography. “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.”
McNeill the Legend was captured in that moment, but his status extends well beyond that one great triumph. To play 790 games is itself special, to do it for a single club is remarkable. Of the one-club players in recent times only the likes of Paolo Maldini, Ryan Giggs and Francesco Totti have that sort of record of continual service.
Touchingly that special record was recognised just last week when a delegation from Athletic Bilbao visited Glasgow to pay tribute to McNeill, with an award presented by another one-club man, José Angel Iribar. It’s a gesture that reflects an association between Celtic and the Basque club, which is rooted in the idea of local identity.
There was a time when that attitude was widespread, but Athletic are now the only big European club that insists its players must be born locally. Celtic in 1967 were the embodiment of that principle: the whole team came from Glasgow and the surrounding area, and Billy McNeill was seen as its personification, both in Scotland and abroad.
Sandro Mazzola, McNeill’s adversary for Inter in that 1967 final, always recalls how their manager, Helenio Herrera, carefully prepared them for the game, but in doing so encouraged complacency. Herrera was nicknamed Il Mago (the Wizard) by the Italian media, but this time he bewitched his own side. Herrera described McNeill as “tough but fair”, which encouraged the Inter players to think they could get away with some physical stuff. He also emphasised McNeill’s strength in the air.
Mazzola recalled: “To be honest this did not worry us because we played our football on the ground… However, Billy McNeill was indeed majestic. A very capable centre-half who played it very simple. When he got the ball he would pass it to his team-mates in the middle of the park.
Celtic were supremely fit – they ran Inter ragged – but also a team that played their own version of Total Football just as Rinus Michels was starting to develop it at Ajax. McNeill was not a marauding centre back, but Celtic’s attacking moves frequently began with him.
He was also immensely determined, and as with others of his generation his health problems in later life may have been exacerbated by his bravery on the pitch, epitomised by his performance in another match in Lisbon, two years after the final against Inter.
This time the opponents were Benfica and, with no seeding back then, a clash that would have been worthy of the final took place in Round Two. 3-0 up from the first leg, Celtic were odds on to go through but Benfica produced a miraculous comeback completed with a last-second equaliser that Celtic were convinced had been scored after the final whistle.
In extra time the captain led by example. “Billy was brilliant in those extra 30 minutes,” said Jim Craig. “Our skipper was flawless, he was getting up and heading the ball about 30 or 40 yards.” With the final score tied at 3-3, the outcome was settled on the toss of a coin in the referee’s room – the last time this procedure would be used in a European match. An exhausted McNeill called heads to decide the right to call, and then heads again to take Celtic through to play Fiorentina.
That was the year Celtic and McNeill should have won their second European Cup, only to lose to Feyenoord in the final. In a reversal of the Lisbon final, this time Celtic were guilty of overconfidence and paid the price three minutes from the end of extra time.
It was the end of an era that had barely begun, but the spirit of Billy McNeill lives on.