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Billy McNeill - My One Position
My one position, almost without exception, since I bowed my way into the Celtic first team around ten years ago has been centre-half.

My one position, almost without exception, since I bowed my way into the Celtic first team around ten years ago has been centre-half.

It’s the position where simply you are there to stop goals being scored, not to get your own name on the scoresheet.

That's why every time I look at a list of scorers and see the name McNeill I still wonder a bit about it all.

When I started in First Division football everyone was liable to think a centre-half had gone out of his mind if he put a foot over the half-way line.

The start of the change for me came one March afternoon in 1961. It was completely unrehearsed, a move which sprang from a halftime chat in the dressing-room.

Celtic were playing Ayr United at Somerset Park, and we were trailing 1-0. I remember sitting talking to two of my team-mates, Pat Crerand and Bertie Peacock.

I said then that if I saw a chance I was going to nip upheld and see if I could take advantage of it. Maybe they put it down to a centrehalf wanting to play centre-forward, but no one tried to change my mind.

And soon after the interval, I saw my chance and grabbed the equaliser, then we went on to win 3-1.

However I must admit it was not a regular tactic until manager Jock Stein joined the club in 1965. He instructed me to move up at corner-kicks and try to use my height to advantage.

It almost came off in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Motherwell when I hit the post, but what a wonderful pay-off in the Cup Final that year.

Remember it was eleven years since Celtic had won the Scottish Cup, eight years since we had won any major honour.

I look back along all the honours we have won in recent seasons, and they have all had wonderful moments, but that 1965 Cup Final has a special place in my memory.

We were playing manager Stein’s old team, Dunfermline, and we had a score to settle with them for they had beaten us in the Final of 1961.

It was a terrific struggle. Twice they went ahead, and twice Celtic equalised. Then fifteen minutes from time I managed to get my head to a Charlie Gallagher cross and nod it into the net.

Since then it has become a set part of our tactics. Even if I don't get to every corner I am still making room for our forwards to take advantage.

There have been some magic moments for me such as the goal which gave us a 1-0 victory in the World Championship match against Racing Club at Hampden.

The first goal against Rangers in the Scottish Cup Final, and of course, the last-minute winner against Vojvodina in the European Cup.

I think that’s the one I would place above them all. Vojvodina were one of the best sides we have ever met in Europe, and it looked as if we would need a play-off to decide the winner of the quarter-final tie.

That was the season Celtic won the European Cup. We had lost 1-0 in Yugoslavia, but Steve Chalmers had equalised for us in the second-half at Parkhead.

The Crowd had encouraged us, we had battled at that Vojvodina defence but we just couldn’t get the ball past them.

The signal had come from the dug-out that there was only minutes to go, when Charlie Gallagher took a corner on the right and I was lucky enough to head it into the net.

What a marvellous moment. Not only had we won, it saved us from the fixture chaos of a third game at a time when we were still chasing the league championship, and the Scottish cup, both of which we won.

Don’t believe it is easy in that penalty area. There is more jostling going on than anyone on the terracing can possibly see.

I believe defenders dislike other defenders going up into the attack more than anything else. They have it in for them with harder treatment than they ever give to forwards.

Maybe these goals go some way to make up for the one that was scored against me last season, when AC. Milan knocked Celtic out of the European Cup at Parkhead.

The goal was scored in the twelfth minute by Piero Prati, because I fumbled a throw-in from Jim Craig in a position from which apparently there was no danger.

I can offer no excuses. As a professional I should not have made the mistake, the worst moment of my senior career.

Why did it happen? Believe me, I have run that move through the film of my memory hundreds of times since that March night.

If I had played the ball first time I’d have been all right. But I wanted to do something useful with it. It bounced off my shin as I tried to collect it.

Even then I might have got away with it if I had just tried to block Prati. But I tried to poke the ball to John Clark. Prati nipped away and that was that.

It was a move I have made thousands of times. I can only describe the mistake as similar to the error a car driver might make after years of safe driving.

Fortunately we went on to win the league championship again, and yet another chance in the European Cup.

I believe it is the European tournaments which are the real test
for Celtic now. Any team needs to be stretched, and it is in these tournaments we could reach our full potential.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not writing off the Scottish tournaments. These are the passport to Europe, and at the top level I believe there has been an improvement in Scottish soccer. But, to be honest, there are still too many teams who if they even draw with ourselves or Rangers it is a seven-day sensation. There can be no letting up for us on the domestic front.

We have already won four championships in succession, we are anxious to go ahead and equal the record of six in a row set up by a Celtic side at the beginning of the century.
I think that the improvement in the general standard is greatly due to Celtic.

Our style of soccer in recent seasons has been shown to be the one the fans wanted to see. It brought a freedom of expression in tactics which helped to change a string of ideas on football. The difference in football from even ten years ago is fantastic.

Take one position, full-back. It used to be the least glamorous job on the park.

Full-backs were expected to do only two things, scare the wingers and belt the ball up the park.

Now if a full-back cannot find time to move up the park and overlap with his winger everyone rates him as old-fashioned.

One player who was well ahead of his time in his thinking on the full-back position was Duncan MacKay, who played with me when I first went into the Celtic league side.

He had all the ideas about overlapping, and joining in the attack. But nobody wanted to know at that time. Still, a great player.

However most of all, there has been the change in the status of footballers. I gave up a good job to become a full-time footballer; Some people wondered about it, footballers were all supposed to be brainless.

That sort of sneer has been wiped out to a great extent now. Not every footballer’s brains are in his feet. It is recognised now more as a career from which there can be a great deal of reward to kids who are prepared to give it the proper amount of work.

Not all of them perhaps can reach the heights of some of the great players I have opposed, but they can make a very good living.

The four top players in my soccer span were Masopust of Czeckoslovakia, Di Stefano, Bobby Charlton and Jim Baxter.

Masopust played against Scotland in a World Cup game in Bratislava in 1961, and it was a soccer education just to watch him. He still showed signs of his greatness six years later when he was
a veteran and played for Dukla Prague against Celtic in the European Cup semi-Fmal.

Di Stefano was still a Real Madrid star when they beat us 3-1 in a charity friendly match at Parkhead in 1962.

Maybe that one match sums up the difference between then and now with Celtic. After the match the crowd chanted for us to do a lap of honour . . . I think they were so pleased we had not been crushed.

It was then that we realised, maybe more than at any time, just how much they wanted us to win something.

Now if we were beaten 3-1 by Real Madrid at home there would be a full-scale inquest.

Charlton is one of the world’s greatest players, for he has made the move back from striker to mid-field and been successful in both of them. I know from playing against him at Wembley last season, just how difficuIt he can be to pin down.

Right up with the best of them in his glory days for Rangers was Jim Baxter. I played with him in Scotland’s international sides, and I played against him in ‘Old F irm’ matches.

He was one of the greatest mid-field players I have ever seen, a man who could inspire a team by his sheer soccer ability, and touch of arrogance.

Jim would try to talk you off a game, even although he and I were good friends off the park.

These were the days when he was in a Rangers side picking up most of the honours, and Celtic were waiting down below to pick up the losers’ medals .

I know what it’s like. Its not even so bad if you lose in a semi-final of a Cup. Nobody can ever tell you two months after it who were the two defeated semi-finalists.

It’s traditional you should take the Cup into the losers’ dressingroom, but I feel it’s only rubbing the defeat in. I know I felt that way when I took the League Cup into the Hibs dressing-room after the final last season.

What about my future? I’m not ready to pack in the playing side of football, not for a long time yet .

But I am often asked if I will eventually become a manager. I can only say that at the moment the idea does not appeal to me too much.

However I would like to stay in football in some way. . . . I hope it’s a problem I don’t have to face for a good few seasons yet.

Billy McNeill - My One Position
By Rodger Baillie
Playing For Celtic No1

Submitted By Lizardking Randalstown Hoops


Posted by voc1967 on Wednesday 18 September 2019 - 19:02:24 | Comments (0)  |  printer friendly
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