I first met Billy McNeill as a young boy when he came to play with other Celtic legends at a charity game in Larkhall. My dad also played in the game and you could see how much respect he held for big Billy as they blethered in the dressing room.
Over the years I have had the privilege of being in Billy’s company, working with him at football Q&A nights and being with him and my old man at sportsmen dinners.
Sometimes there is a sad persona that comes off old players as they leave behind their glory playing days and become ordinary guys trying to make a living. That could never be said about Billy McNeill.
The class and dignity that came off him in sheets on the field of play was always with him even after he hung up the boots and departed the dugout. He was every inch the ambassador for his club. Contrast his quiet dignity with the present possessor of the Captain’s armband and you will see how standards have fallen, not only in football but in society.
Billy McNeill was a man. Today’s footballers are mostly manchilds. He stood head and shoulders above most in terms of sheer leadership energy. You might hate him but you couldn’t help but admire him.
As a boy I loved to see my beloved Rangers beat the teams he captained. But you had to admit he was an outstanding leader of men.
Another unappealing trait of players and ex-players is the arrogant disdain some show for fans. This was another unpleasant aspect missing from Billy McNeill’s personality; he had time for people and understood their need to feel special being in his presence.
Big Billy was hurt by the Mo Johnston situation when the player he thought he had captured signed instead for Rangers. But he was a big enough man to not let that make him bitter. He and my dad maintained their friendship despite it all.
Being Captain of the first British team to lift the Big Cup was a feat that in itself secured Billy McNeill legend status. But that was just one achievement in a glittering career, albeit the biggest.
Perhaps you could sum up the character of Billy McNeill by saying that in an era where respect between Rangers and Celtic fans is at an all-time low, many bluenoses are today genuinely grieving his passing.
Archie Macpherson was asked to sum Billy McNeill up in one word on television tonight. He said “Classy.”
I wouldn’t argue with that but my word would have been “Imperious.”
What you cannot argue with is the epithet that summed him up and brought the genuine if grudging admiration of even the most fervent Rangers fans: Leader.