Billy McNeill’s family urge Celtic fans to “celebrate his life”

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Tributes have been left at the statue of Billy McNeill (Lucy Christie/PA)

The family of former Celtic captain and manager Billy McNeill encouraged fans to “sing his songs and help us celebrate his life” after the death of the first British footballer to lift the European Cup.

Bertie Auld led the way by singing the Celtic Song after laying flowers by the statue of his former team-mate and close friend as supporters gathered outside Celtic Park to pay their respects.

Tributes poured in from colleagues and opponents alike for a man who won 31 trophies as a player and manager with Celtic, who he first joined in 1957.

McNeill, who also managed Clyde, Aberdeen, Manchester City and Aston Villa, made a record 790 appearances for Celtic and was captain throughout the most glorious years in the club’s history, which peaked with victory over Inter Milan in the 1967 European Cup final.

The Bellshill-born defender’s death at the age of 79 was announced in a statement by his five children, Susan, Libby, Carol, Paula and Martyn.

“He passed away late last night (Monday) surrounded by his family and loved ones,” they said. “He suffered from dementia for a number of years and fought bravely to the end, showing the strength and fortitude he always has done throughout his life.

“We would also like to note our love and appreciation to our mother, Liz, for the care, devotion and love she gave to our father throughout his illness. No-one could have done any more.

“While this is a very sad time for all the family and we know our privacy will be respected, our father always made time for the supporters so please tell his stories, sing his songs and help us celebrate his life.”

The news hit hard with former colleagues, especially the men who became known as the Lisbon Lions after their defeat of Inter.

Auld told Press Association Sport: “Today’s news is a tragedy. I was there when the boss signed Billy at 17 years of age and even then he had tremendous presence about him. He was a big thin boy with spindly legs but he was majestic in the air, even at that age. He had a tremendous temperament for a centre-back.

“As the months went on, you could see he had this ability to be a leader. Despite being so young, he would give everybody his opinion and everyone respected him.

“I remember in Lisbon, him carrying the ball out onto the park in Portugal. His chest was out and his head was back. He knew we would win and that filtered through the rest of us. He was never arrogant or egotistical. He just believed in himself and the rest of us.”

Bertie Auld paid his respects at Celtic Park
Bertie Auld paid his respects at Celtic Park (Lucy Christie/PA)

Lisbon Lions right-back Jim Craig told the Celtic website: “Billy was always a natural leader. He didn’t have to say anything, he just looked the part and he was very helpful to me when I came into the team and I’m sure he was the same to the others as well.

“He might have a quiet word sometimes during a game, maybe at a corner or a free-kick, but he was never a shouter, he never needed to roll up his sleeves.

“It was a natural thing he had, an aspect of his character where, if he said something on or off the park, you could accept it.”

PA Graphic
(PA Graphic)

John Clark was McNeill’s room-mate in Lisbon, his central defensive partner, and part of his coaching staff at Aberdeen and Celtic.

“I’ve known Billy for most of my life,” Clark told Celtic’s website. “We played together and spent most of our lives working together, about 60-odd years in total. I can’t imagine a time in my life then without him.

“There were no big egos in that team we were part of and Billy summed that up. He was down to earth and everyone in the team was as well. Billy was well-liked, and everyone who met him liked him because of the kind of person he was.

“He’ll be a big miss. That’s part of my life away now. He was a massive personality.”

Billy McNeill (left) and John Greig
Billy McNeill, left, and John Greig were rivals during their playing careers (Lynne Cameron/PA)

Former Rangers captain John Greig was McNeill’s rival during their playing days but also a Scotland team-mate and friend.

Greig told Press Association Sport: “I’ve lost a very good friend today. We have been close for many, many years. Although we were big opponents on the field we had a mutual respect for each other off it.

“Apart from being a great football player and a great captain for a great Celtic side, he was also a great guy, a real gentleman and I’ll miss him.”

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