Fans pay tribute to Billy McNeill

7 May 2019

Poster of Billy McNeill outside Celtic Park. Photo: Craig Quirie

Celtic great makes final journey to Celtic Park

An estimated ten thousand people lined the streets of Glasgow and grounds of Celtic Park to bid farewell to Billy McNeill, Celtic’s greatest ever captain who was laid to rest on Friday.

McNeill lead the club to its most triumphant moment when in 1967 Celtic became the first British club to lift the European Cup. He later returned to the club as manager from 1978 to 1983, and then again from 1987 to 1991. In total, he lifted 31 trophies during his time at the club he grew up supporting.

The funeral service at St Aloysius Church was broadcasted on big screens outside of Celtic Park, before the procession passed through the crowds to applause, tears and the removal of caps – McNeill’s family then laid flowers at the bronze statue of McNeill holding the European Cup aloft.

Billy McNeill’s final route to Celtic Park.

In attendance at Celtic Park was Jake Malcolm, 17, who said: “Obviously I wasn’t around when Billy McNeill lead Celtic to the European Cup – but we could have never have won another trophy again after 1967 and still forever had the bragging rights in Glasgow. He and his teammates are immortal”.

Billy McNeill’s Funeral Cortege. Credit: Craig Quirie

Martyn Prociw, 24, also in attendance, had his own story to tell of the time he met McNeill at a charity event for a youth football team he played for:

“Billy McNeill was the guest of honour at the event. I saw him, and I thought it was an opportunity I wasn’t going to waste, so I went over to talk to him – a lot of others seemed afraid to approach him, even some of the grown men. I sat down talking away with him, thinking I’d be lucky to get a couple of minutes – time went on and on, and he just sat talking with me about how I was doing at school, and about football.

“I asked if he would speak on the telephone to my dad, so I held the phone on loudspeaker and my mum answered. Billy said ‘Hello, is this Lynne? It’s Billy McNeill here, is Alex there?’ and I can just remember hearing my mum’s quivering, panicked laughter as she told him Alex wasn’t in. He told her to pass on his best wishes to him. My dad hasn’t said much about it, but I know for a fact it was one of the most gutting moments of his life missing that phone call.”

Signed shirts and paintings of legendary footballers were being auctioned at the event, and McNeill enjoyed the conversation with Prociw so much that he paid £1000 for his own signed canvas to give to the then 15-year-old.

“That canvas means so much to me. It sits up in the centre of my bedroom – and it’ll be staying there until I buy my first house where it’ll have pride of place, and my newborn daughter Bonnie will be told how much history lies painted on that little bit of canvas – and she’ll be taught how much that man and his achievements mean to so many, and how he conducted himself as a human being.”

The treasured canvas. Photo: Martyn Prociw

David Potter, author of books such as I Remember 67 Well: Celtic’s European Cup Year and Bobby Murdoch, Different Class – which contained a foreword by McNeill, said:

“My love affair with Celtic started more or less at the same time as Billy McNeill came on the scene. A few years later, I first read Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus is described as ‘the god-like, much-enduring Odysseus’. I had no problem imagining or envisaging Odysseus, for all I thought of was Billy McNeill who was indeed god-like and in 1963 much enduring when he often seemed to be the only Celtic player of any worth at all.”

He continued: “It has been my fortune to meet him twice along with his charming wife Liz – whom my mother admired for her dancing on The White Heather Group. Even when he was beginning to lose some of his considerable intellectual powers, he retained his dignity, his calmness and his authority. He was everything that Celtic ought to be about. He was a prince among players; he was the King; and, for me, there was, is and ever will be only one King Billy, that’s McNeill.”

It wasn’t just the hearts and imagination of those in Scotland that McNeill and his teammates touched, Jose Luis, 62, said: “When I was ten years old Celtic won the European Cup in my hometown of Lisbon.  When I was 20 years old, people in Lisbon were still talking about that Celtic team in awe.”

McNeill paid his final visit to Celtic Park on Friday 44 years after his last appearance for the club. His achievements are unprecedented, and the crowd which contained fans of all different clubs who gathered to say farewell to the legend of football are testament to this.

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