No football fan today would envisage a Scottish team winning a European trophy. That’s why the achievements of the Celtic team in the 1967 European Cup, including the final win against Inter Milan, should be considered an important part of football history. Led by the great Billy McNeill, the team defeated an Inter Milan side that was coached by one of the greatest football coaches of all time, Helenio Herrera.
This article, therefore, looks into the life and achievements of Billy McNeill, Celtic’s greatest ever captain. Born in the year 1940 in Bellshill, Lancashire, McNeill first moved to Hereford, where his father was posted in the military. He later moved to Motherwell and completed his schooling at Our Lady’s High School, where he began playing football.
Whilst playing for Scotland schoolboys against England, he was spotted by Celtic reserve coach Jock Stein, who later became his manager at the first team. He found it difficult to settle at Celtic and was even contemplating a move to Tottenham before the arrival of Stein. It is believed that Stein’s arrival was important for McNeill and vice versa.
Together, they led Celtic to their best era, winning nine Scottish League championships in a row, seven Scottish Cups and six Scottish League Cups. And yes, who can forget the 1967 European Cup final win against Inter Milan. Playing against one of the best Inter Milan sides of all time, led by one of the greatest managers of all time in Helenio Herrera, Celtic were massive underdogs.
Having conceded a goal early in the game, Celtic fought back to beat Inter Milan 2-1. They soon levelled in the 65th minute with a goal from full-back Tommy Gemmell and they took the lead in the dying minutes of the game. Stevie Chalmers’ deflected shot gave Celtic the lead.
As the referee blew the final whistle, all hell broke loose. Celtic fans invaded the pitch out of excitement. Due to the pitch invasion, the team were presented the trophy on the presentation podium and not on the pitch itself. And Billy McNeill became part of football history by becoming the first-ever British player to lift the European Cup.
The reason why Celtic’s achievement in 1967 should be considered an important one is since the team comprised entirely of home-grown players born within a 30-mile radius of Celtic Park. This achievement was, and can never be repeated again. Billy McNeill retired as a player in 1975, having made a record 882 appearances for the club. He won 29 caps for Scotland and scored 3 goals.
After spells at Clyde and Aberdeen as a manager, he returned to a Celtic team that had finished 5th in the league during the 1977-78 season. He quickly turned the club’s fortunes around and led them to a league championship win in 1978-79. He is credited with helping young players like Charlie Nicholas and Paul McStay develop.
Having led Celtic to three league championships, a League Cup, and a Scottish Cup, he left the club in 1983 for Manchester City owing to a public dispute with the board. He later moved to Aston Villa after helping City achieve promotion to the First Division and ensure their survival in the subsequent season.
His return to Celtic Park in 1987 was sad, to say the least. He was asked to return to the club who were celebrating their centenary season, hoping it to be something special. But it was also a time when Rangers were beating them both on the pitch and off it.
The following two seasons were disappointing, with Celtic failing to win a trophy. They lost to Aberdeen in the League Cup final in 1990. A humiliating defeat to Motherwell in the Scottish Cup further accentuated the problems Celtic were facing at the time. He was sacked a year later in 1991. He managed Hibernian as a caretaker manager for the 1997-98 season and retired from management thereafter. He later passed away on 22nd April 2019.
He was one of the first Celtic players at the time to own a car. He earned the nickname ‘Cesar’, after actor Cesar Romero, who acted as the getaway driver in the movie Ocean’s Eleven (the original version). But still, some people consider the nickname Cesar originated from the Roman king Julius Cesar, a fact which McNeill himself dismissed.
“What makes a great player? He’s the one who brings out the best in others. When I am saying that I’m talking about Billy McNeill.”
Words alone cannot do justice to the greatness and brilliance of Billy McNeill. He will forever live in the hearts of Celtic fans, he is one of the greats that ever lived and graced Scottish football.