I’m not sure if there’s a more iconic picture in Scottish football than Billy McNeill holding the European Cup aloft. The first British man to do so, and the leader of a team full of home-grown Scots who’d conquered Europe. I hope my recapturing of that moment does him justice. I can’t talk well about what Billy meant to Celtic fans or how much that great team meant. I wasn’t born and it’s not my story or my team. But my family knew Billy the man a bit and that is mine to tell.
My old granddad preceded Billy to the grave by 23 years but they knew each other. For all my childhood my grandparents lived on Torrisdale Street (between Vicky Road and Pollokshaws Road for those that know the south side). It was the home to sandstone tenements that would rattle to the sound of trains arriving into the Queens Park station. Also to McNeill’s pub. While my parents took us to Australia and back before settling in Falkirk, most of their family remained in the southside of Glasgow, with a large pocket dotted around Hampden and Cathkin Park, two legendary football institutions. As a young kid I played around both regularly.
My granddad had arrived from the borders in Ireland looking to build a better life for himself in the post-war era, my granny with him. He’d laboured on construction sites wherever he could get work until his back gave out, then his older kids earned the family bread. Some of them (including my dad) would later return to education and forge better livings for their families as semi-skilled workers. Another generation on and my parents would proudly tell everyone how their 5 kids are all university graduates in well-respected professions – accountancy, medicine, civil engineering, finance and software design. My family history is a story of immigrants persevering through hardship and ultimately adding to the fabric and betterment of Scotland, but this is about Billy and what he meant to my family – poor people with nothing he wanted from us.
By the time my grandparents had been relocated to Torrisdale Street from 1970’s Pollok, into a flat purchased for them by their children, my generation had already been born and my father’s generation were living in the surrounding areas. My granddad wasn’t a football fan of any description. He liked the news and snooker and not much else other than the occasional drink at the weekend with his brother. Unable to work much with his back, he’d become a bit mopey. McNeill’s at the end of the street would be where they’d go when the visitors had left. Later in life my gran (who stubbornly kept her own house and mopped the close into her 80’s until falling off a chair trying to change a lightbulb) would send him out to the pub when she’d had enough of him or wanted to do a proper clean.
It was through those times he came to know Billy McNeill. The upstairs of the pub would become the location of family events and the downstairs where my old granddad was always made welcome. Billy wasn’t always in the bar, but was regularly – even after he later sold his interest in it. He befriended my granddad and by extension the whole family came to know him. He was present when birthdays, babies, big anniversaries and all the other events families celebrate came along.
I can honestly say that I never once heard him say a bad thing about anyone. He’d tell football stories and tell you all about people’s good points, including Rangers players he was friendly with, but never a negative. He didn’t swear, was unfalteringly sweet to ladies and children (like myself when I first met him) and would engage with everyone like they were close friends. It would be much later when I would come to realise the enormity of what the man had achieved personally and as the leader of his team.
When we returned from Australia I was 12 and had a better idea. I got butterflies talking to him but he was the same old friendly gentleman. I never knew him as well as those who’d stayed closer by and a was too shy around him to talk alone as a kid, though he was always nice to me. My granddad’s health was failing and it was taking its toll on my granny. She’d usher him off to the pub some evenings for some peace. When it was time to come home, she’d send the dog out the close. He’d run to the pub and bark outside. All the bar staff and Billy knew that was his cue to go home. When I was 17 – a short time before the old lad died – I walked him slowly along the street to McNeill’s for the last time with my dad. The three generations of us having a last drink together there. Billy wasn’t about – he may even have sold the pub by then – but the bar staff remembered us. The old boy was a bit muddled by then and couldn’t tell the barman why he hadn’t been there in a while. He didn’t know himself. **Edit – I was going to leave this out, but he actually told the barman it was because he “lost the use of his eyes” which wasn’t remotely true. It was a sad time and I hope Billy didn’t go through the same before the end**
All through his journey through dementia Billy was kind to him. I hope others were as good to Billy in his battle with the same illness.
It’s not that picture of him holding the famous trophy that I see when I think of Billy. It’s a man who was unfailingly considerate. A man who treated everyone as both equals and friends. A man who saw himself as nothing more or less than those of the hands he shook and smiles he shared. Humble and so very human. When you see how many people involved with Celtic and Rangers get chewed up and spat out by the bitterness of that rivalry – Billy stood above it. He left the game every bit as much a gentleman as he carried himself his whole life. Though I’d not seen him again in perhaps 15 years at the time of writing – I’m willing to bet he left the world the same way he lived it. He was the kind of person I’d aspire to be. Not for his sporting achievements, but for his kindhearted nature and humanity. I see him congratulating my grandparents instead. Shaking hands with a big smile or holding my infant relatives. RIP Cesar – as much a legend as a person as you ever were on the field. You gave us all so much of your time for nothing but our friendship in return.