Not many people are aware of this.
But I believe part of the reason I was fortunate enough to have had a career in football was because I used to babysit for Billy McNeill!
We are going back almost 50 years, to when I was on the groundstaff at Celtic Park.
Marina and I had just started dating, and as her parents were friendly with the McNeills, she was already a regular at Billy and Liz’s house in Newton Mearns, looking after, at that time, their three daughters, Susan, Libby and Carol.
Goodness, they were full of mischief, and we had good fun.
They loved to play hide-and-seek, and had me on toast! I’m still trying to find them.
At that time, I was probably a more-accomplished babysitter than I was a footballer.
But they must have put in a good word to their dad about me and maybe, in turn, that encouraged Billy to help me succeed at Celtic.
Maybe even to the extent that Billy put in a good word for me with manager Jock Stein, just because I was a reliable babysitter.
The McNeills were just great people to be around. They were caring and kind, thoughtful and selfless.
So Marina and I were deeply saddened by Billy’s passing on Monday night.
You know, when Marina’s parents, Pat and Martha, weren’t keeping well, Billy and Liz were very supportive and were always there for us if they were ever needed. That’s the kind of couple they were.
Our thoughts are with Liz and all the family.
The wonderful tributes to Billy from all around the world in the past few days will have been lovely for all the McNeill family to read and listen to.
They are well deserved. Billy was a talented footballer – but a brilliant human being.
When I became a young professional at Celtic, to be surrounded by the Lisbon Lions, Billy was very welcoming and offered sound advice and guidance for what lay ahead, both on the park and off.
He had no problem with handing you daunting tasks – regardless of age and experience – if he felt you were up to it.
I will never forget August 14, 1971, the day of my first Old Firm game. It was at Ibrox and we were 1-0 up with about 20 minutes to go when we were awarded a penalty.
Big Billy just handed me the ball and told me to take it. I was stunned and extremely nervous.
I tried to negotiate my way of the situation. But big Billy was adamant – I had scored from the penalty spot many times for the reserves and could do it for the first-team.
The difference was 80,000 Celtic and Rangers fans happened to be inside the stadium that afternoon!
Anyway, shooting into the Celtic End, I gathered my composure and scored.
Yes, it worked out in the end.
But had I missed the penalty, then my career may well have been over before it started – and Billy would have been party responsible!
I grew in confidence from that day, however, and Billy played a major role in my development.
I knew he had my back and my best interests at heart. It was the same from the whole dressing room.
Billy made sure there was a togetherness amongst the boys, and his exemplary leadership set the highest of standards for us all to aim for.
He was a true captain and fought his team-mates’ corner, wherever and whenever it was required.
At the behest of the squad, he would sometimes have to chap big Jock’s door, and air one or two things that the players weren’t overly happy about.
That was a measure of his bravery and solidarity with his team-mates.
Believe me, it must have taken a helluva lot of courage to go in on your own to see big Jock.
The manager might not have been delighted to have Billy in with a complaint, but he would have respected him for speaking up, and would have wanted his captain to show that strength and leadership.
That what’s made him the successful captain he was.
To skipper the club to nine titles in a row and also be the first captain in Britain to lift the European Cup speaks volumes for both Billy’s ability and determination.
The success of the Lisbon Lions against Inter Milan in 1967 will never be eclipsed.
When you are first to do something, it means that can’t ever be taken away from you.
I only wish big Billy had played on for longer.
He retired immediately after the 1975 Scottish Cup Final victory against Airdrie. But he had told me of his decision a few days earlier when we were in the car together. Yes, I was very surprised. But it wasn’t my place to ask him why, or question his decision.
I always felt, however, that one day he would be back at Celtic Park to manage the team.
He had spells at Clyde and Aberdeen before that happened, and he had the difficult task of succeeding big Jock.
But Billy handled it all brilliantly, and very soon had that dramatic League title success in 1979.
In his second spell as boss, he led the club to a Double in their Centenary year of 1988. That, too, can never be taken away from him.
He was dedicated to the club and that’s why it’s entirely fitting that there is the lovely statue of him outside Celtic Park, holding the European Cup aloft.
It captures the moment brilliantly.
Over the past few days, there has been talk of other lasting memorials to Billy, such as naming a stand at Celtic Park after him.
It’s far too early for that. Nobody should put Celtic Football Club under pressure to do this, that or the other.
Let Liz and the family grieve and celebrate Billy’s wonderful life. In time, I’m sure there will be dialogue with the family.
Whatever happens in the future, we can be assured Celtic will do their best by Billy.
He gave a huge chunk of his life to the football club, and made sacrifices due to his love for Celtic.
His dedication to football was rewarded with a brilliant career.
And his devotion to Liz and their children gave him a family life that he cherished and was grateful for.
Rest in peace, big man.
n Kenny’s hand in Billy’s last-ever goal – See page 20.