Log in or sign up


Billy's Last Hurrah
I suppose at some stage in everyone's life there comes the moment of realization that, while the old-age pension may not be quite round the corner, time is not standing still.

I suppose at some stage in everyone's life there comes the moment of realization that, while the old-age pension may not be quite round the corner, time is not standing still.

It could be when a familiar land-mark. like the street where you lived, is knocked-down, or when a daughter brings home her first boy-friend, or simply when the police men on the beat do seem to be getting younger.

I have to admit reluctantly that the moment of truth came for me with the announcement after Celtic’s Scottish Cup victory against Airdrie that Billy McNeill was retiring from football.

I am a week younger than McNeill, or as I like to tell him he is a week older, for we belong to the class of March, 1940, and when he began his career with Celtic I was starting my journalistic stint as a sportswriter.

Facts show, of course, that Billy did not actually skipper Celtic right from his first appearance in the league team against Clyde in August, 1958, a debut in which my former colleague, Hugh Taylor, with a perception he could scarcely have credited at the time, hailed then in the Evening Citizen, as the baptism ‘of Celtic’s new Jock Stein’.

It only seems that he has been the skipper for all that time because during these years I have been a reporter the long, fair-haired figure of McNeill always with the brows furrowed in the same intense look of concentrationhas led Celtic on to the field.

There was a solid continuity about it, as permanent a Glasgow sight as the Central Station or even Celtic Park itself.

On the rare occasions that McNeill was not in his familiar place in the side it was such a newsworthy event that sports editors anxiously buzzed reporters, not to find out which current deputy had been promoted, but who had substituted as captain.

But as was bound to happen if we only looked at reality the belief that McNeill would go on for ever , fostered perhaps because hardly anyone could remember when he was not there, became just another of sport's wages.

Yet surely in his long, glittering career , with so many towering pinnacles ,it can be truly said of Mcneill that nothing became him more than the leaving or football .

For like the sensible person he is his decision to bow out after the Scottish cup final , win or lose , proved to be so right .

The gods of sport smiled benignly on Billy and his club, to give them an eventual comfortable 3-1 win , as they collected the Scottish Cup for a record breaking twentyfourth time.

And tucked away in the Hampdem programme was yet another statistic to show just how much Jock Stein's players have kept so closely in contention for football's major prizes.

For it revealed that it was Celtic's tenth Cup final appearance in eleven years, yet another tribute to the amazing consistency that the rest of soccer only dreams about.

And the Celtic fans who, after the side's slump in the league, had been nervous and apprehensive about the outcome of the game against Airdrie , let themselves go as their team showed they can still scale great heights.

The form failures which had shrouded their earlier displays in the league simply melted away in the summer sunshine on a day when the weather left us with a memory of how it should always behave on Cup Final day.

There were some fascinating reasons for this Celtic victory, and they were made up of names sprinkled right through the team.

There was goalkeeper Peter Latchford, brought on loan from West Bromwich Albion only two months before in a desperate bid to shore up the position for the crumbling league challenge.

At times his form had looked no better than the men he had replaced, but in the Cup Final suddenly it all came right, and he nobly earned the right to be one of the few Englishmen to hold a Scottish Cup medal.

There was also a new full-back combination of Danny McGrain and Andy Lynch. For me, the immaculate McGrain cool in defence and adventurous with his attacks was the man of the match.

But Lynch's Cup-winning medal belongs to the chapters of boy‘s comic stories. and maybe he could hardly believe It himself.

For only six months before Hampden the unfortunate Lynch. who had been bought from Hearts for £35000, found himself as the winger who was not wanted at Parkhead , and on the open-to-transfer list.

Then with one of these selection strokes which separates Jock Stein from other managers, Lynch suddenly popped up a month before the final in a new position of left-back.

Admitted later the Broomfield team had looked on Lynch as the week link in the Celtic defence .

They expected him to be used permanently in attack , and they planned to throw men into the vacant space when he charged upfield .

But although Airdrie'e goal was scored by right winger Kevin Mcannn the strategy never worked, for Lynch showed himself competent in defence, and In fact it was the other full back, McGrain, who did much of the attacking .

Then there was Paul Wilson , switched from the wing to striker and heading two superb goals to overcome a personal tragedy, for he had attended his mother’s funeral only twenty four hours before the final .

There was Kenny Delglish , in the sort of tantalising form which marks him as the most exciting individual talent in Scottish football today.

There was Bobby Lennox, the bubbling little extrovert of the team back in the side after nearly a season in the shadows , and at 31 showing that on firm ground few players can match him for a devastating turn of speed.

And on TV later that night it really needed a wide screen to capture properly his grin of sheer delight.

And , of course. there was Billy McNeill.

The niggling worries about his form, the fact that in an earlier Cup round against Second Division, Clydebank, he had been dropped, were all forgotten.

They called him ‘Caesar' at Parkhead, and the nickname never fitted him better than on this occasion. It was a farewell to remember in the Cup Final by big Billy.

Alert as ever in the air. incisive with his tackles, anxiously pushing his team on, McNeill could have picked no better occasion to bow out.

The teams who lined up at Hampden were . . . Celtic; Latchford, McGrain, Lynch; Murray, McNeill. McCluskey; Hood, Glavin. Dalglish, Lennox, Wilson . . . subs, MacDonald. Callaghan.

Airdrie: McWilliams. Jonquin, Cowan; Menzies, Black, Whiteford; McCann, Walker, McCulloch. Lapsley, Wilson . . . subs, Reynolds, March.

Referee, Mr I. M. D. Foote, Glasgow.

Airdrie had stated publicly before the match that they felt they had to contain Celtic in the opening twenty minutes.

Then, perhaps when Celtic's first momentum had been blunted, they could bring their careful, neat soccer to the task of drilling holes in the Cup-holders defence.

The script started to go wrong for the part-time side in only 14 minutes, with one of those goals that looks so good even after repeated action replays.

It was started with a great sweeping move down the right by Danny McGrain, who shoved the ball into the path of Kenny Dalglish.

Far out on the right Dalglish suddenly started to dart towards goal then , with the sort of precision cross that even Stanley Matthews would have envied, he whizzed the ball over to Wilson.

The dark-haired. striker, running in with deceptive casualness as if it had been a holiday bounce game , headed it past keeper Davie McWilliams.

Yet it was to Airdrie’e credit that they did not collapse under the incessant Celtic pressure, which allowed them, as Stein had planned, little respite.

The Broomfield side exposed some of the nerves in the Celtic defence when a header from right-winger McCann spun off the post.

But the woodwork stakes were balanced up with a gem of an effort by Dalglish , a header which also hit a post and bounced to safety for Airdrie.

Then in two incredible minutes before half-time, as both the ref and the fans were beginning to sneak a look at their watches, Airdrie were given a glimpse of glory . . . and then had it clouded over for them again.

Their moment to remember was started with a free kick, not properly cleared by Celtic, which started a forty-second minute panic in the Cup-holders’ defence.

McCulloch and Whiteford blazed in shots that were blocked, and as green-and-white shirts tried desperately to re-group McCann a self confessed Celtic fan raced in to slam a glorious shot high into the roof of the net.

But the Airdrie players had hardly separated from the hugs which inevitably greet any goal in a Cup Final before they were back in the role of picking up the pieces.

From the kick-off Celtic scampered down the field, and immediately forced a corner. It was taken on the left by Lennox , and as it swung over Wilson somehow, someway, found space in a penalty box crowded by friend and foe alike, to dash forward and grab a second headed goal.

Mr Foote could really have stopped the proceedings there and then, for Airdrie were never to come as close again to level terms, never mind even taking the lead.

And eight minutes after half-time Airdrie knew that their hopes of making their first Cup Final appearance in 51 years a winning one had gone.

That was when Lennox whizzed past right-back Paul Jonquin who promptly tumbled him near the bye-line , and Mr Foote instantly pointed to the penalty spot.

Pat McCluskey made a cool, professional job of taking the spot-kick, casting aside any weighty thoughts that a miss would give Airdrie renewed hope.

The burly Celtic sweeper had been cautioned earlier in the match, as his team-mate Danny McGrain was later, and so also was Airdrie's Mark Cowan.

But perhaps the bookings owed more to over-carefulness on Mr Foote's part to make sure that violence stayed clear of the match, rather than real physically dirty play.

If only for that then they served their purpose for the game was generally as clean as a showpiece should be, but sometimes does not measure up.

Celtic had one final tremor in the dying minutes, when Latchford had a free kick given against him deep inside the penalty box for carrying the ball more than the regulation four steps.

It was this route, when Motherwell ’keeper Stewart Rennie over-carrried , which had given Airdrie victory in the semi final replay.

But , there was to be no late drama. Celtic efficiently smothered the free kick , and eased their way to the final whistle.

McNeill raised his arms high to the heavens, just as he had done on a similar summer afternoon ten years earlier when Celtic had started their great glory run with the victory against Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup Final.

Then after the handshakes the victors milled about in the centre circle and McNeill, with a supporter’s scarf draped round his neck, was raised high on his team-mates shoulders.

There was a quick word from manager Jock Stein, and then in a rush reminiscent of a Grand National charge at Aintree, the players dashed from one end of the ground to the other pursued by panting press photographers.

Down on the touch-line there was one of those little cameos that so often go unrecorded, but which show that football can have a heart.

Celtic manager Jock Stein quietly went round each of the defeated Airdrie team, who were standing watching their opponents' joyful cavalcade, to shake their hands.

And indeed the sporting acceptance of the result by manager McMillan and his team was an object lesson to any losing Cup Final side.

There were a handful of us in that giant Hampden crowd of 75,457 who shared the secret that McNeill had decided to retire.

The fans did not know, but perhaps in that subtle way a crowd has of sensing when something big is happening they realized there was something significant about the fuss his team-mates were making of McNeill, and I like to think that the cheers which made up the loudest roar of the season were partially directed at the Celtic skipper.

It was strange to recall the fears that had been expressed when the road to Hampden had started for the major clubs as far back as January that both the ‘Old Firm’ teams faced quick elimination.

The third-round draw the one where the big guns come in had put both of them on dangerous ground, and there were demands for the big competition to be seeded in future seasons.

Certainly they had drawn tough assignments. Celtic travelled to Easter Road to play Hibs, and Rangers faced the long and tough journey to meet Aberdeen at Pittodrie.

The Ibrox side stumbled, and then fell, when after a 1-1 draw at Pittordrie, they were beaten 2-1 at Ibrox in the replay and their hopes of a Cup and League double were destroyed.

Celtic, however, expertly got round the dangers posed by the Hibs game, with a clear-cut 2-0 victory, and the goals came from Deans and Murray.

The next round on February 15 was perhaps fortunate it brought a Second Division side. Clydebank, --for the second successive season -to Parkhead.

For it came in the middle of a despairing spell in the league, and for the game ’keeper Alistair Hunter and McNeill were dropped, with Scotland youth international ’keeper Graham Barclay, and Roddy MacDonald taking over.

Celtic got an even bigger shock when Clydebank scored first, but Jacky McNamara equalized, then Dalglish scored two marvellous goals and MacDonald finished it off for a 4-1 victory.

Clydebank’s near neighbours, Dumbarton were the next opponents to be taken on and beaten, they were disposed of by 2-1 at Boghead, thanks to goals from Wilson and Glavin.

And in the semi-final, for the third successive year, Dundee were the beaten opponents with a second-half goal by Ronnie Glavin doing the damage for a 1-0 victory.

So the way to Hampden was opened yet again. And a Cup Final, which on paper had seemed to hold no more than average attraction eventually won its way into the record books as they all do anyway, but more important found a warm place in the memories of the spectators.

That was because it will always be remembered as Billy McNeill’s last hurrah . . . and not even soccer master-mind Jock Stein could have scripted it better himself!

Billy's last hurrah
By Rodger Baillie
Playing for Celtic 7

Submitted By Lizardking Randalstown Hoops


Posted by voc1967 on Saturday 14 September 2019 - 21:01:42 | Comments (2)  |  printer friendly
  • voc1967 @ 14 Sep 2019 : 22:55
    Good work padddy keep them comeimg .
  • Lizardking @ 14 Sep 2019 : 22:54
    These old stories in old Celtic books are what I love the most about my Celtic books .
News Categories